Whether you are a child, a casual visitor to the theatre, or a Shakespeare buff, Antoni Cimolino’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest will delight you in ways beyond imagining. With the incomparable Martha Henry as Prospero, this production both entertains and provides plenty of food for thought.
Cimolino’s notes point out that while the play is about the discovery of compassion, it is also, most significantly, about governance. It is a play that explores the often irreconcilable polarities between humanity’s baser desires, and the will to transcend. As Cimolino points out, “almost every character wants to govern others yet cannot govern themselves.” The reasons for this are multitudinous; for example, there is a significant difference between Prospero’s ability to master her desire for revenge against her brother and the King of Naples, who have robbed her of her title, riches, and kingdom, and that of Caliban, whose desire for revenge is born out of years of slavery and disenfranchisement. The desire might be the same, but the context makes all the difference.
The power of casting Martha Henry as Prospero resonates on many levels. Prospero, the woman, speaks to nuances within the text that are completely different when played by a man. What can it mean for a woman, a mother, to seek to live in pursuit of knowledge, and to trust the management of her economic affairs into the hands of a relative? Many single mothers know the answer to that question. Seen in this light, the issue of governance becomes one that is significantly more complex; and the power of a woman to stand against a world run by men who have usurped her rights becomes altogether too familiar.
The enchantment of this afternoon’s performance happens largely because Cimolino has not forgotten that The Tempest is a play for all ages. There is a purposeful lightness to the artistic touch, sets, and costume design that somehow enhances the darker overtones of the play: the three godesses, Iris, Ceres, and Juno, appear very much like theatrical versions of Disney fairy godmothers; Prospero herself wears a patchwork robe, much like a technicolor dream coat. The genius of Propsero’s cloak is not immediately apparent—the patches that make up this quilt of dreams are fragments of fabric from robes worn by past Prosperos, material from a dress worn by Henry herself in her first season at Stratford (where she played Miranda), and pieces of the tent that housed the Festival from 1953-1956.
In her 44th season at Stratford, Henry’s Prospero was luminous and earthy. Her approach to the very tricky nuances of delivering a character who is both victim and perpetrator was subtle, funny, recognizable, and also mysterious. But what stole the show for me were the incredible performances by the cast’s youngest members, Sébastien Heins as Ferdinand, and Mamie Zwettler as Miranda. I have often bemoaned the fact that Stratford Festival performances of the Bard are often uneven because younger cast members struggle with the delivery of blank verse. Such was not the case in this performance, and indeed, Heins’s subtly hiphop delivery of certain phrases was so witty that he deserved every bit of the standing ovation that he got. In fact, there wasn’t a single lacklustre performance—a veritable feat given the size of the cast and the length of the performance.
Unfortunately, in what was otherwise a stellar production, what did not enchant in any way, was the music. Original compositions by Berthold Carriére sat musically somewhere between Disney and the Elizabethan lyric—and the divide was simply too great. The unfortunate choice of using synthesized accompaniment created a rather tacky soundscape, and took away from the magic that set and costume design had so carefully evoked. But thankfully, these incursions were not significant enough to mar what was, in every other way, damn fine theatre!