Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Tempest (1979)

Derek Jarman's inventive interpretation of what is believed to be Shakespeare's final play wisely understands that the traditional narrative thrust - Prospero's expulsion to his isle of wonder - is over before the play even begins. As a result, Jarman's energies lie in the atmosphere of the piece and his fascination with magic, alchemy and the life and legend of the Elizabethan astrologist John Dee; the man widely believed to have been the inspiration behind Shakespeare's Prospero, who had died in ignominy as James I set about discrediting the Elizabethan preoccupation with magic, and who Jarman had previously included in his film Jubilee.

Jarman's The Tempest really is a film steeped in atmosphere and one in which the traditional theatrics inherent in the text are dispensed with in favour of an acceptance that magic is real. These atmospherics are also helped rather than hindered by the film's tiny budget, with the entire shoot taking place inside Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, doubling as Prospero's candlelit lair and Bamburgh Beach, Northumberland (shot with an ethereal blue tint to enhance the dream-like qualities of Jarman's telling) as the isle's coastline where the shipwreck washes up. 

Also dispensed with is the sense of imperialist postcolonialism that is often inherent in many adaptations of the text. Here, Jarman cast a white actor to play Prospero's 'savage and deformed slave' in the shape of the regular cohort Jack Birkett, whose Romani roots draw comparison to a possible influence on Shakespeare's character (kaliban or cauliban means black or blackness in Romani) as the first gypsies are said to have arrived in England a century before Shakespeare's era. He also went one further and created a flashback scene featuring Caliban's mother Sycorax played by Claire Davenport, an imposing Junoesque Aryan seen breastfeeding Birkett and pulling the tormented Ariel (Karl Johnson) on a chain in the hope he too will suckle at her large teats! 

Character-wise this is very strong stuff. Birkett's Caliban, using his broad native Leeds accent, is a beguiling mixture of the nauseatingly repellent and wretchedly pitiable. The latter is especially apparent as he naively falls under the spell of the shipwrecked drunkards Stephano and Trinculo (Christopher Biggins, arguably the only luvvie in the cast, and Peter Turner), whilst the former is queasily apparent when it is revealed that he has continually tried to sexually violate Prospero's daughter Miranda, since their arrival to the island and therefore, presumably, when she was just three years old. 

Starring as Miranda is Toyah Willcox, still a relative newcomer to acting and aged just twenty-one, takes to not only her first Shakespearean role but arguably her first proper acting role away from punk stereotypes with aplomb. Indeed, the distance travelled from her performance in Jarman's Jubilee just two years earlier to here is nothing short of incredible. Her Miranda is unmistakably a young woman with neither the understanding or appreciation of her gender or the desires she feels because of her time in exile. As Prospero, the gloomy, thoughtful banshee that is Heathcote Williams is an unforgiving master, reminiscent of an incarnation of Doctor Who deemed too disturbing for the family show. Physically, there's a touch of Tom Baker, but in character he's reminiscent not only of the paternal qualities the grandfatherly William Hartnell possessed, but also the dark, unknowable and quite terrifying qualities Hartnell also originally brought to the show. 

But the icing on the cake comes in the film's final scene. Embracing the themes of forgiveness he so appreciated from the text itself, Jarman reinterpretes the Elizabethan and Jacobean tradition of the masque, the courtly entertainment which bears witness to goddesses of classic mythology for the purposes of magic, to introduce the legendary American singer Elisabeth Welch who performs her rendition of Stormy Weather to the assembled cast and a whole fleet of sailors - a magical, touching, happy-ever-after and gloriously camp high note to close the proceedings.

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