AISLE SAY Stratford


by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring Christopher Plummer
at the Festival Theatre through September 12th

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Last summer, after seeing several shows over two days at SSF, I was checking out of my B&B when another couple behind me began to talk about Macbeth which starred Colm Feore and was directed by Des McAnuff. "Well" the one playgoer began huffily, "she's no Kate Reid, that's for sure," referring to Yanna MacIntosh's performance as Lady Macbeth.  The remark might have seemed unfair or even churlish given the fact that it was 48 years ago that Ms. Reid played the role opposite Christopher Plummer's Macbeth. Such are the long held, cherished memories of dedicated SSF goers where everyone is a critic and where the bar is generally set pretty high. It is also a place where I, at the age of 62, still feel remarkably youthful at intermission as I gaze across the aging demographic that makes up a significant part of the Stratford audience.


One needs to mention this, because in the case of The Tempest, the legacy of Prospero at SSF is particularly memorable. In the six productions since 1962, the part was played by William Hutt four times. If anyone owned the role, had branded it and placed their name irrevocably alongside the great Shakespeareans of history that had calmed the angry sea and magically reconciled the hateful conspiracies that abounded on his remote isle, it would be Hutt. What actor in the English speaking world could possibly follow only five years after Hutt portrayed the role for the final time and only three years after he passed away at the age of 87 at his home in Stratford? There is literally only one -- Christopher Plummer -- who walked out onto the stage of the Festival Theatre as Prospero almost three years to the night of Hutt's passing.


With a genteel, graceful manner, a razor sharp clarity of purpose, and not a little bit of wit, Plummer took the torch that was passed from one actor to another like the exchange of great Olympians. By evening's end, the bar was raised yet another notch.


The Tempest is probably the last complete play that Shakespeare wrote. Its place within the canon is all the more extraordinary because it is the only play in which he constructed the plot out of whole cloth while being influenced by current events and the big philosophical questions of his day. The politics of the Elizabethans was fraught with intrigue and Shakespeare built in at least 3 threads of conspiratorial power tripping within The Tempest.

The first conspiracy is the play's back-story; the events of 12 years earlier in Milan when Prospero lost his dukedom in a coup instigated by his own brother, Antonio. These machinations recounted in speeches by Prospero to Miranda early in the play, can produce ennui. With Plummer speaking the words, it is like pulling up a chair around the campfire at the lake to hear some of those old stories that you've heard many times before but never tire of. Trish Lindstrom's adoring Miranda hangs on every word and her uninhibited wild child approach to the role (as opposed to precious protected princess) builds the father daughter relationship nicely.


The second conspiracy is the nefarious connivance between Antonio (played with sneering cynicism by John Vickery) and his flippant confederate, Sebastian (Timonthy D. Stickney) to usurp Alonso, the King of Naples (a morose Peter Hutt). Finally, there is the grand revolutionary scheme to usurp all of the ex-pat nobility on the island instigated by the inebriated lumpen butler, Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) at the Festival Theatre through September 12th), with the jester Trinculo (Bruce Dow in a thoroughly gay interpretation that seems to affectionately channel the late comic actor, Paul Lynde). Declaring war on everyone, they conspire to take power with the help of their newly enlisted indigenous lieutenant, Caliban (Dion Johnstone). Success is simply built into the roles of Staphano and Trinculo. With the less sympathetic, Caliban, there is room for error, but Johnstone treads carefully around the cultural minefield of post-colonial IED's that inhabit the role, and survives with dignity.


The Tempest utilizes Prospero's manipulation of magical spells as the allegory to construct an architecture for the play that has, as its subtext, the debate between science and religion that emerged out of the Renaissance - all heightened by the exploration of the New World (a term that was in popular usage when the play was written circa 1611).  Two events that might also have influenced Shakespeare were the wreck of the Sea Venture off the coast of Bermuda and Francis Bacon's propounding of a new scientific methodology.


At the beginning of Act II, as the shipwrecked passengers rendezvous in "another part of the island", the "honest old counselor" Gonzalo (James Blendick) is moved to describe his new environment. Since the lights are lowered a bit, and Michael Roth's sensitive musical composition is used to underscore the moment, I think it's worth reporting what he says - or rather envisions.  Gonzalo speaks of a commonwealth in which there would be no divisions of labor between rich and poor, no rights of inheritance or private property, no guns, knives or weaponry of any kind; no traffic, no national boundaries, no need for oil and no occupations! He sees within the natural world all the needs of subsistence provided.  It is truly a lovely moment (and touchingly rendered by Blendick) but, needless to say, it passes quickly as we get back to all of the political chicanery unfolding.


Des McAnuff's direction is engaging, fast paced and never boring. In casting Julyana Soelistya (in her SSF debut), as Ariel, he made the perfect choice. Hopefully we will see more of her.


True, one sometimes has the feeling that McAnuff is always just a few millimeters this side of a Broadway musical whenever the script calls for song. But in fact, his musical theatre background can be a good thing as when Shakespeare calls for "divers spirits" Iris, Ceres and Juno to celebrate the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda. Amanda Lisman, Claire Lautier and Sophia Walker sing with huge voices and costumes to match (think Wicked here, handsomely designed by Paul Tazewell) prompting Ferdinand (Gareth Potter) to remark, "This is a most majestic vision and harmonious charmingly."  The line actually makes sense for Ferdinand when the scene is so successfully integrated into the body of the play.


The ending is modest and traditional with Prospero granting pardons to all of his malefactors before asking the audience for one himself. But in my mind's eye, I'm reminded of Gonzalo's speech and can't help envisioning an alternative scenario.


On a large screen we see the projected image of a ship ready to set sail, now fully repaired after it was split in two during the storm that opened the play. Caliban enters downstage and watches the ship depart from shore. He is wearing Prospero's magic garment and holds his staff as he reads the book he has retrieved from the ocean's floor. As he watches the screen, the camera pulls back and we see that the island is not deserted at all but shows signs of development with a shore line of hotels and high rise condominiums.  We now see the ship is headed out toward off-shore oil rigs engaged in production. One rig has encountered difficulty and is spewing huge amounts of crude oil into the ocean. In one final swoop of magic, Caliban has advanced the sojourners into the first decade of the 21st century.  He surveys the scene and then looks directly at the audience as he starts to laugh, mockingly echoing Miranda's words, "O brave new world that has such people in't!"

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