Shakespeare's Magic Edited Out Tempest Tailored for a Teapot

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada)
May 17, 1982
Author: Ray Conologue

Taking anything larger than a paring knife to a Shakespeare play is a barbaric procedure, as Jeremy Brett's vanity production of The Tempest now at Toronto Workshop Productions demonstrates.

This production materialized, like Ariel, out of nowhere, but has proved itself empty of magic. Its creator's considerable reputation - from Britain's National Theatre and a variety of film and television roles - has emboldened him to saw away fully half of the play's text in order to realize a "personal vision" of it. The result is instructive.

Brett plays Prospero. It is perhaps not surprising then that his vision appears little more than an emphasis on Prospero's demented (or so it appears in his performance) craving for revenge at the expense of the object of that revenge - namely, the nobles of Naples and Milan whom he has shipwrecked on his island. These worthies appear only in dumb show, with the exception of a very few words from Gonzalo, leaving the play itself as a bare enactment of Ferdinand's courtship of Miranda, and Prospero's terrorizing of the two, and of Caliban and Ariel. The clowns do not appear.

What this accomplishes is to burn away the play's lighter stuff and leave a rather grim residue. This intensity is announced off the top, with a striking set that consists of a wide beige carpet rolled from the back wall of the theatre to the foot of the audience. The carpet, Prospero's sandy island, is surrounded by black: floors, walls and ceiling, through which two black-caped characters representing wind and storm occasionally dash.

In tune with this minimal approach, Brett presents a Prospero he doubtless hopes will be seen as a severe, stormswept warlock of ambiguous moral quality, something like Merlin as seen by C. S. Lewis. There is some support in the play for this. Prospero certainly treats Caliban, the rightful owner of the island, with hideous contempt, plays games with Ariel's freedom and makes zealous Ferdinand lug great lumps of firewood from place to place.

But there is a wistful side to Prospero, the observer of midnight mushrooms and the enchantment of magic that has soothed a lengthy, impotent sojourn while awaiting revenge. And there is the whole matter of his abjuring of magic. The sense of real and imaginative worlds in tension with each other requires a subtler performance than the bombastic, wild-eyed Prospero that Brett presents us.

The character of Prospero is further coarsened by the presenting of his love for his daughter as essentially incestuous. The text does not support this, and Brett's dealings with Peggy Coffey, who plays Miranda, look more like a group grope on a punk rock record sleeve than anything else. It is sadly inappropriate that Coffey, a young actress with some Shaw Festival experience, performs a radiant and completely engaging Miranda that belongs in a better production than this.

Geraint Wyn Davies, who capably plays romantic leads with a slight leaning to wimpishness, plays Ferdinand capably enough. Iain Deane plays both Caliban and Ariel, an exhausting procedure but not technically difficult: the one stands upright, the other scuttles. He neither stands upright nor scuttles with any particular distinction.

There is no question that Brett, who was directed in Hedda Gabler by Ingmar Bergman and in Troilus and Cressida by Tyrone Guthrie, is a confident and powerful actor. What this soggy Tempest teaches is that even such an actor, in the absence of a director, can lose perspective on his work. One example: The noisy speech that leads Miranda to make her "cure deafness" remark is delivered noisily enough, but with odd, intermittent bellows that are even louder than the rest. This bellowing is pure technique. There is no feeling whatever behind it.

This, and most of Brett's performance, is in fact a hollow recitation of technique. He makes no sustained eye contact, either with us or his fellow performers; his emotions spin themselves in a void, a vacant room. I have rarely seen such an opaque and unrevealing performance. No director worth his salt would have tolerated it.

How a well-known British actor came to assemble a Toronto cast for a local production of this arid "vision" is a story outside the scope of a review. But one hopes this Tempest will be severely re-thought before being made into a film, as the promotional material threatens it will. 

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