I’d heard about it already, so I took my grad students to Taymor’s Tempest last night with low expectations. Lots of overly sweet stuff was already baked into the cake — the Harry Potter sound-and-light show, the distracting CGI versions of Ariel, the utter failure of the universal geometry she subbed in for the masque. Plus I’ve never seen a really good Miranda, & I wonder if that version of innocence simply isn’t playable today. Felicity Jones did not change my mind.
The good things were also mostly expected — the clowns were great fun, esp Alfred Molina’s drunken sea chantey, Russell Brand’s Trinculo was manic, and the island set was stunning. I’m somewhat on the fence about Djimon Hounsou’s Caliban. Cvered in earth & moonshine, he was visually overdone, but he projected real energy & physical charisma. The conspiracy scene was impressively dramatic. I liked watching the sailors go overboard in the shipwreck scene.
But what I didn’t expect was seeing Helen Mirren, a wonderful actor, fail so miserably.
It’s a play about power, & she didn’t project it. She had the wand, raised the storm, drew the flaming circle, stage-managed the lovers, bossed around the spirit, but she didn’t wield power. It’s pedantic to carp overmuch about cuts — any film has to cut some of Shakespeare’s language — but when she faced off with Caliban at the end, it seemed meaningful that he did not speak h is final line about needing to “seek for grace.” He just turned his back on her and left. She had nothing he wanted.
It doesn’t make sense that Prospera should be weak because she’s a woman, though Taymor’s film seems, according to her interviews anyway, to be bound up in cultural fantasies about motherhood. But mothers, as Shakespeare certainly knew, are plenty authoritative and plenty scary: remember Gertrude and Volumnia. Taymor ‘s film defanged her magician, minimizing her political delinquency in Milan and downplaying her aggression toward Ferdinand & her other dependents. The camera also shot Mirren mostly from above, making her seem frail. (Caliban, by contrast, was shot mostly from below.)
I like the idea of a female Prospero. But I’ve never seen a version of The Tempest before where the bits without the wizard were always best.