Since the pandemic lockdown, theaters have upped their exploration of streaming options, realizing there are audiences to be had beyond in-house seating. At their best, these video captures are more than just, “Well, I can’t be there live so I’ll have to settle for this” compromises. Instead, they can be terrifically satisfying as films. Yes, films. Shot-from-the-stage films of theater productions — and, sometimes, the issues they raise — will be the focus of the recurring feature Screen Plays. And now, on with the show!
There have been terrific movie productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
In most cases, though, they have been peopled with actors who never performed the play straight through, instead relying on shooting-schedule planners to decide whether Lear is going to banish his beloved daughter before he rages at the storm or what order Richard III will bump off his betters before rising to the throne.
On stage, however, performances build, not just over a single performance but over time. The results, however, usually exist only the run of the play, then they vanish. Such is the nature of theater.
Shakespeare’s plays, however, are far more likely to get recorded than the work of most other playwrights, not just because of their familiarity but also because Will isn’t collecting any royalties. Many of these are far stronger as at-home entertainment than the film versions of the same works.
For this column, I took a look at six shot-from-the-stage productions of The Tempest, Shakespeare’s late-period, difficult-to-categorize fantasy that mixes high drama, romance, goofball comedy and melancholy meditations on loss and forgiveness.
It takes place on an island where Prospero, a magician betrayed in his home country, lives with his daughter. As it opens, Prospero summons the title storm to shipwreck a boat carrying his enemies, among others.
The most recent streaming production features some high-profile names behind the scenes. It’s co-directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) and features music by Tom Waits played by an onstage combo. The son-of-a-witch Caliban — here played by two linked actors — has movement credited to the famed performing arts group Pilobolus.
As you would expect, Prospero’s magic gets the accent mark in this one. Before the play even gets rolling, the faerie Ariel is doing close-up card tricks with audience memes. And tricks, large and small, are woven throughout. Some are smart variations on traditional on-stage bits. Prospero not only raises Miranda, he actually raises Miranda — levitating her from a bed of flowers, his love palpable and accentuated by a beautiful tune. Other times, the prestidigitation is more surprising. To simulate drowning, a character’s face is plunged in a large bowl of water for a seemingly impossible length of time. In another, the shipwrecked Ferdinand, smitten with Miranda, leans forward at a gravity-defying angle.
The tricks sometimes work against the drama. It’s tough not to want the play to move on to the next “wow” moment. That might help attract some outliers to a play that might not opt to attend (or stream), but it can often alienate those who come, in part, for the poetry and emotional charge Shakespeare’s plays can bring. But Waits’ music delivers notes of nihilism (“We’re all gonna be / Just dirt in the ground,” “God’s away / God’s away / God’s away on business”) that, oddly, help tie the disparate parts of the play together.
Tickets for this streaming production, which runs live through Sunday (Jan. 29) at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, can be ordered through Wednesday, Feb. 8 at https://roundhousetheatre.org. Be aware, though, that it must be viewed by Sunday, Feb. 12 before…poof!
Seeing the Round House stream — and not having yet experienced a fully satisfying on-stage production of The Tempest — I decided to explore other options.
On YouTube, I was very pleased to find a production from Canada’s then-Stratford Shakespeare Festival (now just Stratford Festival) that aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1982. It stars Len Cariou, taking the role not long after his career-defining stint in the original Broadway company of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Some of that Todd rage is evident in Cariou’s take on Prospero, and that anger helps make his tenderness toward his daughter and the final reconciliation moments all the more emotionally powerful. Cariou’s captivating work anchors a rich production, well-shot for its day, that mines the play for both its poetry and its connectivity. It was the one that moved me the most.
Although I was looking forward to seeing Simon Russell Beale in the lead, I was less impressed with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production. Over-gimmicked with special-effects projections, including a virtual Ariel, its distractions are many. It would be easy to dismiss if it weren’t for Beale, who doesn’t need more than an empty stage to make magic. This Tempest can be streamed via National Theatre Live.
More Tempests are available through BroadwayHD (https://www.broadwayhd.com/).
For something completely different, there’s a high-concept version in which Harriet Walter (of Succession) leads an all-female cast in a production whose meta-level involves inmates of a women’s prison performing the play with their own verbal variations and catchy music. Plus, it contains a pretty amazing “our revels now are ended” transformation using balloons, projects and an angrily wielded pin.
Walter certainly is the most tormented Prospero I’ve seen, but it helps to be more familiar with the original material to appreciate this one, which was staged in 2017 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
Back to more traditional Shakespeare: Christopher Plummer is masterful in a 2010 production opposite a female Ariel and a playful, amorous Miranda and her beau, Ferdinand. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Plummer on stage (I was blessed to see his Iago in Othello), this is as close as you can get.
Lesser known outside of Canada but with an equally impressive stage life is Martha Henry, who spent most of her career as actress and director at the Stratford Festival. Her gender-flipped performance as Prospera in 2019 didn’t just cap a brilliant career, it crowned it.
The production is blessed with a seemingly age-appropriate Miranda in Mamie Zwettler and the joy of Stephen Ouimette as Trinculo, a comic role that in lesser hands can produce more squirms than laughs. And Barry Avrich, the film’s director (not the stage director) is second to none when it comes to smoothly shifting angles and finding cinematic rhythm for screen-captured plays.
But it’s Henry who makes this Tempest special. With appearances in more than 70 productions and a directing credit on 14, she lived many lives on the Stratford stages. (The productions featuring Plummer and Henry are also available through Stratfest @ Home at https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/athome.)
Having her work and that of other career stage actors preserved for audiences beyond the theater’s walls is one of the great gifts streaming offers.