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Review: Art more powerful than bomb threats in Stratford Festival’s The Tempest

  • Title: The Tempest
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Antoni Cimolino
  • Actors: Martha Henry
  • Company: The Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont
  • Year: Runs to October 26, 2018

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Martha Henry as Prospero and Michael Blake as Caliban in The Tempest.

David Hou

I’ve never heard anyone speak the word “art” with quite the passion or the power that Martha Henry does playing Prospero in The Tempest at the Stratford Festival.

The 80-year-old actor is starring as William Shakespeare’s wizard in a production that officially opened at the Festival Theatre on Sunday, 56 years after she made her debut on the very same stage playing Prospero’s daughter, Miranda.

And two weeks after the originally scheduled opening was cancelled due to a bomb threat.

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Most older actors playing Prospero as they near the end of their on-stage careers connect most directly with one of two of the character’s speeches – either “our revels now are ended” or “now my charms are all o’erthrown.”

But Henry is most moving in the soliloquy where Prospero says goodbye to the magical creatures she has conjured over the many years she’s ruled her enchanted island. “You elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves!” she burbles, a luminous love pouring out of her as a dozen bramble-headed beings gather at her feet.

To them, she lists with increasing emotion all the tricks she’s performed over the year “by my so potent art” – and heaves that final word on the audience as if it is indeed the most potent one in the English language. And then she promises to throw it all away – abjure her “rough magic,” drown her books, break her staff.

It’s tremendously sad – and yet, in this Tempest, we understand why she’s doing it: for her daughter.

The tension in this Prospero – a woman, the deposed Duchess of Milan, in Henry’s interpretation – is between her art and her child, Miranda (an incredibly sweet Mamie Zwettler). She’s raised her daughter on this island among her spirits – but she knows Miranda needs more.

Is it too much to say in this Prospero we see the struggle so many female artists feel, between creation and creativity, elevated to the level of myth?

Henry’s Prospero – sometimes kind, sometimes half-crazed – is at the centre of a production that, like most directed by Stratford’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino, draws from the cream of the crop of the company.

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You’ve got stage legend Stephen Ouimette displaying complete comic mastery as the clown Trinculo; his character seems always aware of how ridiculous he is, and yet is resigned to that fate. His scene partner is Tom McCamus as the drunk Stephano – and the two make the oldest jokes in the book seem fresh.

Over on another part of the island, Graham Abbey and André Sills are a riveting double act as Antonio, who stabbed his sister Prospero in the back long ago, and Sebastian, who is thinking of literally doing the same to to sibling Alonso to become the King of Naples. This subplot usually seems like a Macbeth manqué – but here Abbey and Sills fill the schemers with uncommon vigour and humour.

As for the romance between Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, and Miranda, the fresh-faced Sébastien Heins and Zwettler make it as sweet as you could wish.

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

David Hou

But Cimolino and his fine cast can’t really solve basic narrative problem of the play: Everything goes according to Prospero’s plan, and it eventually starts to feel like puppetry. Here we have great actors crafting fascinating characters who are then left dangling.

It doesn’t help the momentum that the islanders seem in a forgiving mood from the very start. Michael Blake’s Caliban is too sympathetic from the get-go – with Miranda even stepping in to protect him from her mother and neutering her accusation that he had sought to “violate the honour of my child.”

In the second half of the play, perhaps realizing he’d written himself into a corner, Shakespeare favours spectacle over plot – and designer Bretta Gerecke gets the chance to show off with giant monsters and sparkling special effects. When the goddess Juno arrives, she appears in the form of Lucy Peacock riding a carriage pulled by peacocks, accompanied by two other goddesses in multicoloured dresses with trains that make the one on Meghan Markle’s wedding dress look humble.

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It looks great, but Cimolino makes a major mistake in letting his fancy design upstage his star at the end, concluding with a final, unnecessary image and cutting off what was a beautiful moment of connection.

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