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Stratford On Film: The Tempest

I had the pleasure of experiencing The Tempest at The Stratford Festival last summer and was utterly delighted to see that it is one of the plays that The Stratford Festival has now released on film.

The Tempest is the last play that William Shakespeare wrote on his own. The play contains both tragic and comedic themes intricately woven to create a fascinating tale of family, nobility, betrayal, revenge, love, redemption and perhaps colonialism.

Martha Henry. Photography by Clay Stang – The Garden.

A Story of Betrayal, Revenge, Redemption & Love

The Tempest tells the story of the betrayed and banished Prospero and her three-year-old daughter Miranda who become ship wrecked and then miraculously marooned on an isolated island. Prior to their banishment, Prospero held the lofty title of the “Duchess of Milan” and was the rightful heir to the throne of Milan, until her conniving brother Antonino usurped Prospero’s position and took the throne becoming the King of Millan.

Fast-forward to 12 years later, Miranda has grown into an intelligent, beautiful and strong 15-year-old ready for romance, as 15-year olds are apt to be.  Enter Ferdinand, son of Alonso, King of Naples who aided Antonio in usurping the crown from Prospero. Whether due to sorcery or misfortune, Ferdinand reaches the island, falls madly in love with Miranda and she with him. Has prince charming come to Miranda’s rescue bringing with him love, redemption and reconciliation?  If he has, Prospero will not necessarily make it easy for him.  

Sébastien Heins as Ferdinand and Mamie Zwettler as Miranda in The Tempest. Photography by David Hou.

Mamie Zwettler who plays Miranda, informs us that Miranda is without a doubt an extraordinary character, a person who has lived through trauma and loss and has come out on the other side as a person who has learned not only from books but life itself how to successfully deal with adversity. Mamie feels that while some may consider Miranda to be somewhat naïve, we would be doing a disservice to Miranda, who despite the adversities she has experienced, maintains her excitement and wonder about the world. Mamie declares Miranda is above all brave both emotionally and intellectually, ready to assume new responsibilities which makes her an exceptional role model for our current times. I could not agree more.

Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest. Photography by David Hou.

While Miranda used her 12 years to grow up and blossom into a virtuous and strong young lady, Prospero took a darker turn. She used her time to read a book on magic, with the specific intention of transforming herself into a powerful sorceress. Ostensibly to control the others on the island and presumably to avenge herself against her brother.

There are many delightful twists and turns to the plot, taking us on a roller coaster ride ranging from sympathy to distain for many of the key characters, particularly for Prospero and Caliban the island monster. Miranda however is steadfast in her kindness and secure in her integrity.

The Tempest concludes with the engagement of Miranda and Ferdinand, thereby restoring Miranda to European royalty. As for Prospero, she is reconciled with her brother Antonio and now has the support of the King of Naples. She also agrees to abandon sorcery.  Reconciliation, love and redemption. It does not get any better than this. This is the ultimate fairy-tale ending for Miranda and to some degree for Prospero.

Mamie Zwettler as Miranda and Sébastien Heins as Ferdinand with members of the company in The Tempest. Photography by David Hou.

The Tempest has been the subject of many varying interpretations ranging from a metaphor for European colonialism to Shakespeare pronouncing his farewell to the stage.

A Story of Family as Old as Time

Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in the 16th century yet it is completely relatable to current times. Tragically, do we not all have knowledge of some story of betrayal involving family? The telling of stories that transcend time and place is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s greatest gifts to the world. However, unlike King Lear which is strictly a dramatic play of family betrayal why is The Tempest both a dramatic and comedic play?

The Possible Role of Comedy

From left: Stephen Ouimette as Trinculo, Tom McCamus as Stephano and Michael Blake as Caliban in The Tempest. Photography by David Hou.

The unfathomable betrayal of Prospero and Miranda is catastrophic. Is the introduction of humour and a happy ending telling the story of treachery of the ruling class in a manner that is less offensive to the British nobility yet still relatable and entertaining to the governed classes?   

Colonialism Sub Text

Prospero can be interpreted to be a ruthless colonizer who seeks to rule no matter what the circumstances even if her rule is dark and exploitative. During Shakespeare ‘s time, Britain, France and Spain were colonizing, conquering (or illegally occupying in today’s terms) distant territories, that were previously not their own. The America’s are a good example.  

Martha Henry as Prospero and Michael Blake as Caliban in The Tempest. Photography by David Hou.

Despite debates amongst scholars on whether Shakespeare was commenting on colonialism and on the content of his commentary, the colonialization subtext or story within a story can be seen in The Tempest if one is looking for it. It is clear throughout the play that with perhaps the exception of Miranda, everyone is afraid of Prospero.

Consider how Prospero, a marooned visitor to the island, has come to rule it through power and sorcery and of course the exclusion of local candidates such as Caliban and Caliban’s mother.  When Caliban attempts to organize an uprising, he tells Trinculo, the King’s jester and Stephano, the King’s drunken butler that Prospero has “taken his island”. Caliban clearly loves the island and would do almost anything to rescue it from Prospero’s occupation. 

Shakespeare Saying Farewell

Yet another interpretation of The Tempest is that Shakespeare is saying farewell to the stage. This is particularly visible in the final act. After Prospero has released Ariel and banished Caliban, she turns to the audience, makes a heartfelt farewell speech, releases us all and herself from duties and obligations and makes speculative pronouncements about her future. This is one of the most intriguing and engaging parts of The Tempest which has been brilliantly brought to life by Martha Henry.

Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest. Photography by David Hou.

The Cast

The cast of The Tempest was outstanding. Prospero is generally cast as a male character, however for this production The Stratford Festival cast the highly regarded Stratford Festival veteran actor Martha Henry in the role of Prospero. Her performance was exceptional and brought another dimension to the character of Prospero causing the audience to feel sympathy for her condition yet distain for her shadowy preoccupations and cruel intentions. Interestingly, When Henry initially performed at The Stratford Festival in 1962, she was cast in The Tempest as Miranda.

The performance of Mamie Zwettler as Miranda was fascinating. This is Mamie’s first season at The Stratford Festival, and it will certainly not be her last. Mamie grew up in Chicago, studied theater at The New York Theater School and is now enjoying the tranquility of Stratford and the opportunities that this creates to learn and work with some of the best repertoire theater actors in the world.

In sharing the stage with Martha Henry, Mamie tells us that she learned many things from Martha but above all she learned to never stop exploring and growing as an actor. Mamie goes on to say that Martha Henry brings a high level of excitement and curiosity to the characters she plays. She endeavours to learn something new about the character each time she is on stage.

Mamie will hopefully bring the same level of craftsmanship and enthusiasm to all the future roles she encounters. We expect that with Mamie’s talent, there will be no shortage of stage opportunities for her in the future. For the 2019 season she has been cast in the Neverendingly Story and The Crucible. These are both plays that I plan to see.

Michael Blake’s performance as Caliban was also excellent. The way Blake moved on stage and his emittance of strength and defiance radiated a certain empathy for Caliban as well as repulsion for some of his actions toward Miranda whom he betrayed in early adolescence. Blake made this complex character truly come to life.

Other intriguing and memorable performances include Andre Morin as Ariel the freed tree spirit, fiercely loyal to Prospero, Sébastien Heins as Ferdinand the kind and handsome prince, Tom McCamus as Stephano the drunken butler and Stephen Ouimette as Trinculo the court jester.

André Morin (centre) as Ariel with members of the company in The Tempest. Photography by David Hou.

Staging, Costumes & Music

I would be remiss not to comment on the beautiful costumes that wonderfully enhanced the staging of the play and which at times appear to reference clothing worn by colonizers.  The delightful set design, particularly the enchanting lighting and ethereal music brilliantly complement the story being told on stage by the actors.

Film Screenings

This beautifully acted, directed and staged play that is absorbingly entertaining and that continues to speak to our times is now available on film for those who missed it when it was first on stage at the Festival Theater at The Stratford Festival or for those of us who would love to see it again.

The Tempest will be screening at Cineplex Theaters across Canada beginning on April 13. For more information on show times, locations and tickets for Canadian screenings please consult https://www.cineplex.comf/Events/Stage.

For information on U.S. screenings and other information please visit stratfordfestival.ca.


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