The Streaming Experience: Stratford Festival’s The Tempest
I honestly don’t know if I have ever seen Martha Henry on stage before. She is probably one of the most respected actors on the Canadain stage, and continues to contribute to the vibrant scene in Toronto and throughout Canada. She joined the Stratford Festival company in 1962, playing Miranda to William Hutt’s Prospero in The Tempest. She became a well-loved member, appearing in over 65 productions at the Festival, 30 of them by William Shakespeare. She won acclaim for several roles including Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1969), Isabella in Measure for Measure (1976), Olga in Three Sisters (1976), and Paulina in The Winter’s Tale (1978). In 2018 during her 44th season, at the ripe old age of 80, Ms. Henry found herself once again on that main stage, but this time playing The Tempest‘s lead male character, Prospero. And if I had my way, I would have gladly been there for opening night. From what I hear (and I know someone who worked with her when she played Mary Tyrone in the film version of her acclaimed and widely respected 1994-95 production of Long Day’s Journey into Night), she is one of the best in Canada, and one of the most loved. I almost got to see her a few months ago when she was starring in the wonderful smart Marjorie Prime, but the timing didn’t quite work out, sadly. So I feel somewhat blessed when I saw that her Prospero was included in the Stratford Festival 0n Film. And it finally arrived for viewing as one of the second category of themes, “Isolation“, pertinent at this time of pandemic to hopefully spark further thought or conversation amongst viewers: the first was “Social Order”, and the last two are “Minds Pushed to the Edge”, and “Relationships”.
As directed with the clearest of vision by Antoni Cimolino (Stratford’s King Lear), Henry claims her throne on that same stage in the same play that she made her debut at Stratford. And even a bomb threat that delayed its opening night for more than a week couldn’t stop this powerfully astute performance from entering into our stratosphere. She occupies the Stratford space with a regale air, bringing life and gravity to the part without overshadowing the text or the fantasy. Henry’s performance commands attention simply and seemingly without effort, as she sits up high surveying her orchestrations like the Duchess of all things wonderful. She delivers her lines and maneuvers her delicate plot points with agile delicacy and intent, controlling the fair outcomes as if the power of the heavens was stationed in her staff.
Prospero, as written by Shakespeare, is the ultimate puppet-master sitting strong in the center of the joyful and jovial The Tempest. As the sorcerous architect of all the winds and the spirits within, the once-Duchess of Milan, exiled with her young daughter to this island, has a plan dipped in metaphoric poetry to deliver revenge. Many years ago, her brother, Antonio, played well by Graham Abbey, set in motion a treacherous conspiracy that took all power and title away from Prospero and set her adrift in the sea. She sees vengeance on the horizon when a ship carrying Antonio and the other conspirators, including the King of Naples, sails near Prospero’s sanctuary island. The grand sorceress calls down a great storm through her self-taught magic, seeking to punish her enemies, but thoughtfully ensures that there are no injures on board. She has wilder plans for them all. She firstly, commands the spirits of the island to assist her in separating her brother’s son from his father, while also delivering her sorted enemies to her through a series of calamities and dangers. Prospero will get her revenge and we marvel at the solid sight of this figure standing tall over the storm and her island.
Henry finds warmth and care securely inside her magnificently powerful performance, commanding all to sit up and take notice. She charms and breathes wisdom from the first moment, commanding the stage as clearly as Prospero commands the magnificent storm, beautifully orchestrated by the artistic team lead by designer Bretta Gerecke. The wild tempest delivers those enemies ashore, but it is in her scenes with her daughter Miranda, played by the sweet Mamie Zwettler, where Henry finds the maternal edge that brings her Prospero into the fine formulation of love and affection. Maybe because of Henry’s familiarity with the role of Miranda or just the altering of the gendered perspective, but here, unlike most other productions, Prospero talks to Miranda with genuine tender love and compassion, and not a pawn to be manipulated for the grand scheme. We hear their story and discover Prospero’s wide emotional strength lodged within that first interaction., and with a subtle fondness and humanity, she also shows her duality. There is a courageous power in regards to the fascinating lizard-like creature, Caliban, played adroitly by the intense Michael Blake, and a stern but caring affection is on display for the magical sprite Ariel, majestically portrayed by André Morin.
The captivating creation of the character, Ariel follows her command at every turn, and wisely trades his service for personal freedom at the end of the folly. Morin finds music in his movement, enlivening the marvelous sprite into a wondrous fairy force to be reckoned with. He musically teases and draws the players into their positions for the game, like pieces on a chessboard, and delivers Propero the winning stance to strike down that self-imposed Duke/King. It’s clear Ariel’s character has conflicting emotions within the vengeful scheme as he is both desperate for freedom and feels unflinching loyalty to Prospero, but he also has earthy compassion and sympathy for the shipwrecked men, and will do what the can to protect them from one another.
It’s in the moments of tenderness that turn this Tempest into something genuinely grand and dynamic. As Prospero finds success in her orchestrations, Henry’s performance conveys a gradually building remorsefulness for the plot against her enemies. “But this rough magic I here abjure.” The lines are weighted with the realization of something bigger, better, and of higher value, and in that subtle shift of perspective, we find the magic of Martha’s Prospero and of Stratford‘s production.
The rest of the players in this remarkably charming Tempest find equal magic in their meanderings across the island stage. Zwettler radiates sweetness and innocence in her performance as Miranda, although her delivery doesn’t match the perfection of her counterparts. Sebastien Heins is adorably charming and handsome as the young lovestruck Ferdinand, the son of Prospero’s brother. Prospero’s plan of the two falling in love is almost too easy for Propero to achieve, putting shirtless tasks and mundane complications in their way, almost strickly for our, and her, pleasure. Stephen Ouimette, one of my personal favorites (particularly for his “Slings and Arrows” performance) and the wonderful Tom McCamus (both are also a formidable pair in Stratford’s Coriolanus) find drunken gold in their roles as Trinculo and Stephano, especially once they take up with the scheming monstrous Caliban to murder Prospero while she sleeps, and rule the island. They find every possible laugh in their ridiculous characterizations as only these two glorious actors could unearth and provide.
The unrepentant Antonio, alongside the devilish King Alonso, portrayed by David Collins, the devious Sebastian, played by Andre Sills, and the other well-crafted nobles fulfill their wandering player parts, fighting and sleeping their way blindly through the tricks and figments placed before them by Ariel at Prospero’s request. The Tempest is often thought of as one of Shakespeare’s most fantastical of creations, and through the magic of Stratford Festival‘s fine design team, the spectacles are a pure visual delight. Gerecke deserves praise at every turn for the twisting roots of the background, elevated by lighting designer Michael Walton’s own spot-on sorcery, but it is the design of the glowing red-eyed beast that flaps its massive black wings terrifying the once-proud nobles that is most deserving of applause. The shrieks, thanks to the fine work of sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne, seal the deal, hypnotizing us all with this dreadfully magnificent and ferocious beast.
One of the scenarios I most love about The Tempest, while simultaneously being a bit ridiculous, is the other beautiful gift from the design department. During the union between Miranda and King Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, Prospero summons up three gorgeously adorned spirits by the names, Juno (Lucy Peacock), Ceres (Alexis Gordon), and Iris (Chick Reid), to sing the masque’s contract of love. Overflowing with color and light, the ceremony dazzles the senses, with Juno riding in on a peacock-feathered throne while the two other goddesses float out with sweeping long trains of delight. The visual is organic and awe-inspiring. making one want to stand and give applause for all those who worked so diligently in the costume department of Stratford. They certainly know how to deliver the sumptuousness required. And on a lovely little side note, it is said that Prospero’s robe has incorporated pieces of fabric from all the robes of every actor who has played Prospero at Stratford before the magnificent Martha Henry, as well as a sliver of the dress she wore so long ago when she portrayed Miranda. It’s a fitting tribute to a gorgeous production ruled over by the delicious Queen of Stratford swirling with pride within Shakespeare’s The Tempest. May she rule for many years to come.
For those who are able in these trying times, please consider donating to this or any arts organizations near you, as they strive to continue to provide artistic beauty and intellectual stimulation in a world shaken by this pandemic. My hope is that this streaming event will remind people just how vital the arts are to our communities, our sense of self, and (for many of us) our sanity.
So stay tuned in to Stratford Festival‘s line-up. It is most worthy of our time and interest.
The next filmed production in Stratford Festival on Film series is Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare’s that I am not overly familiar with, so I’m doubly excited.