Monday, January 17, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: The Tempest (BBC, 1980)

The Play: The Tempest -- BBC
Directed by: John Gorrie (1980)

This is not the The Tempest you’re expecting. In this one, Prospero is still a dude.

Genre and Setting: Often called a “romance,” I believe, The Tempest is hermetically set on a desert island. In this adaptation, the set resembles a scrubby vacant lot with some big rocks. The actors are in traditional Shakespearean costume of the kind you might see in a high school production.

The Gist: A magician (Prospero), the banished Duke of Milan, conjures a storm to wreck the ship of his old political enemies. Various romantic, comic, and dramatic episodes ensue among the shipwrecked men and the magician’s goody-good slave (Ariel), his barbarous, rough-hewn slave (Caliban), and his beautiful daughter (Miranda).

The Tempest is among the more intellectually ambitious of the Shakespeare plays, I feel, and there are all sorts of interesting themes at work in’t. I am especially fascinated by how Shakespeare uses Prospero and Caliban to think about the then-new phenomenon of European conquest of other people’s islands. In this deployment of anthropological metaphor, The Tempest can be thought of as an extremely early instance of good science fiction. In my humble opinion.

The synopsis on the DVD cover.
The Adaptation: The BBC was able to pull in some talented actors, but entombs them in the production values of daytime soap opera. The sound quality is poor, the visuals are amateurish and grainy to boot, and the spectacle scenes are painfully, painfully unspectacular. Caliban looks less like the spawn of Sycorax and the devil than the spawn of Chewbacca the Wookie and a Motorhead roadie, and Ariel, naked, anorexic, vapid, and covered with body glitter, is just kind of... icky. But these details don’t really do justice to the badness of the direction, which consists almost entirely of people standing in a barren landscape reciting their lines. This is a play about magic and the nature of power, and as such requires a little oomph. This adaptation is sadly oomph-free.

Clocks In At: around two hours. You get the whole play, uncut but a bit rushed.

Pros: The Tempest is such an awesome play -- in my humble opinion -- that even to just have it read by competent Shakespearean actors is kind of cool.

Cons: The Tempest is such an awesome play that it deserves a better look and feel than you would get from a lesser episode of original-series Star Trek.

Prognosis: I look forward to finding a good version of The Tempest to recommend to you.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I had issues with the Helen Mirren version but the production was not one of them. Though Ariel is still anorexic.