by Ellen S. Jaffe
The Tempest, probably Shakespeare’s final sole-authored play, is about magic – its power and its limitations – and about finding forgiveness, healing, and freedom through the breaking of spells and illusions. It is also about the magic and the power of theatre. Stratford’s current production of the play, beautifully directed by Antoni Cimolino (the Festival’s Artistic Director) and starring Martha Henry as Prospero, is one of the most magical and moving theatrical experiences I have had. Certainly a Tempest with a soul. Martha Henry as Prospero, you say? Isn’t Prospero a “male” role? Well, yes – and no.
Prospero is written as male, but today, in theatre as elsewhere in life, gender roles are shifting. One of the virtues of theatre is that great texts can be staged in different ways, and great actors can take on almost any role, giving the words and character a new embodiment. This is Henry’s 44th season at Stratford; her first role, in 1962, was Miranda – Prospero’s daughter. She gives depth and complexity to the character of Prospero.
The mother-daughter relationship between Prospero and Miranda, played with grace and knowing innocence by Mamie Zwettler, becomes important to the drama. We learn how, when Prospero was Duke of Milan, she wanted to devote time to her young child as well as her studies, and gave the reins of government to her brother Antonio. He then usurped the Dukedom and sent Prospero and Miranda off to die at sea, but they washed up on a deserted island. This is where the play opens, twelve years later. Miranda is now fifteen.
Prospero has continued to hone her magic, planning revenge. She creates a storm, the “tempest” of the title, to shipwreck Antonio and other nobles (plus their sailors) on her island. The tempest becomes a metaphor for the emotional storms that all the characters experience – ending in peace, not disaster.
On the island, Prospero has two “servants:” Ariel, played by Andre Morin, is an air-sprite whom she rescued from captivity imposed by the witch Sycorax, and Caliban, portrayed by Michael Blake, is Sycorax’s son, repeatedly called a “monster.” In this production, more than others I’ve seen, both Ariel and Caliban are portrayed as vital for Prospero’s growth and change. We see their “almost-human” qualities. Morin is an Ariel with common sense as well as spirit, and has a haunting singing voice. He does Prospero’s bidding while longing to be free. The scene where he asks Prospero to have empathy for her captives – “I would, if I were human” – is an especially poignant moment.
The character of Caliban has been linked to Indigenous people of the new world; Shakespeare would have known about recent explorations and colonizations. In this production, Caliban is envisioned with one arm and part of his torso having scales and claws; he shows the humanity inside this “creature,” moving with the passion and grace of a dancer. He talks about his intimate knowledge of the island – its streams, birds, noises – and is bitter about his servitude. He laments, “You taught me language – and I know how to curse.” Angry at his treatment by Prospero, he swears allegiance to Stefano (Tom McCamus) and Trinculo (Stephen Ouimette), butler and jester to the King, who ply him with drink (another link to the treatment of Indigenous peoples.) McCamus and Ouimette work beautifully together. Their scenes are played for broad humour and something more: when Caliban interacts with them, we feel his pain and his striving for dignity. By the end, Ariel and Caliban are free – a theme of Stratford this year. Prospero, too, becomes free through her ability to forgive and to renounce her special powers (another moving scene). All are restored “to themselves.”
A major subplot involves the love of Miranda and Ferdinand, the King’s son (stranded on the island, away from his father), culminating in their idyllic marriage. Sebastien Hiens shows Ferdinand’s charm and goodness.
There is not space to list all the cast; I will mention that Rod Beattie does well as faithful minister Gonzalo; Graham Abbey plays Antonio, and David Collins is Alonso, King of Naples, who aided in Prospero’s banishment. There are also groups of sprites and monsters, witnesses to the action.
Set, lighting, and sound make the play come alive. Most of the action is on a bare stage, commanded by a large tree with spreading roots and branches, serving as Prospero’s cell. Lighting suggests daylight; sound and music are subtle. During scenes of intense magic and illusion, however – the tempest itself, the startling Harpy, and the pageant of Ceres (Alexis Gordon) and Juno (Lucy Peacock) – the light is multi-coloured, the sound intense, and the costumes radiant and dream-like. Kudos to designer Bretta Gerecke, lighting designer Michael Walton, composer Berthold Carriere, and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne.
The Tempest runs at the Festival Theatre through October 26.