The Tempest - the road to a female Prospero
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Helen Mirren pulls the old switcheroo on the Bard this Friday...
There's certainly no shortage of Shakespeare-based TV movies, but big-screen successes are limited. Since Baz Luhrmann's controversial but critically acclaimed 1996 reinvention of Romeo + Juliet led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, few Shakespeare adaptations have even remotely attracted as much attention.
Old hand Kenneth Branagh has certainly had a fair stab at adapting Shakespeare's plays, with six bard-related movie features under his belt. His two most recent attempts both received mixed reviews (2006's As You Like It starring Kevin Kline and Alfred Molina and 2000's Love's Labours Lost with Timothy Spall), particularly for attempting to modernise the stories by using unusual settings and genres.
In 2000 Michael Almereyda's Hamlet (Ethan Hawke, Bill Murray, Julia Stiles) received a similarly divided response with criticism mainly focusing on casting. However, Michael Radford's 2004 more faithful reworking of The Merchant Of Venice (Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes) received generally positive reviews.
This year, we've already seen Kelly Asbury's playful child-friendly animated re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, the cheesily titled Gnomeo and Juliet. And this week, we must now brace ourselves for yet another crack at Shakespeare – Julie Taymor's The Tempest.
Believed to have been written between 1610-11, critics widely agree The Tempest may have been the last play Shakespeare solely wrote. Although the work wasn't hugely popular during Shakespeare's lifetime, it is now often viewed as one of his greatest plays, telling the story of a powerful magician renouncing magic and tying up the strings of his life, The Tempest is often seen as a metaphorical work insightfully representing Shakespeare and the stage he had reached in his life through the lead character, Prospero.
Since the 1908 and 1911 shorts, televised features of The Tempest have appeared on cue almost every decade - 1939, 1951, 1960, 1980, 1992, 1998, 2001 and 2010. Successful big screen versions however, are few and far between. A highly sexualised Tempest courtesy of Derek Jarman appeared in 1979 with Toyah Wilcox as Miranda and Heathcote Williams as Prospero. Paul Mazursky completely deviated from Shakespeare's text in 1982's Tempest, recasting Prospero as Philip Dimitrius, a successful architect experiencing a midlife crisis who exiles himself to a remote island. Almost a decade later, Peter Greenway's Prospero's Book (1991) remained truer to its inspiration and attracted award nominations/wins for its innovative structure and visual imagery.
Now almost twenty years on, it's about time someone reminded us what a fantastical mystical play The Tempest truly is. Full of sorcery and Shakespeare's original themes of love, forgiveness, retribution, conspiracy and grief, in Taymor's version, Prospero becomes Prospera, a strong female figure, like Prospero banished by her brother. Traditionally a male lead, Taymor's Prospera plays on 16th and 17th century witchcraft convictions, utilising the character's now female sex and magical proficiency. In keeping with the language and story of the original text, Prospera is still exiled with her young daughter and continues to orchestrate a shipwreck reunion with her brother, aided by spirit and monster servants.
Speaking about altering the lead's sex, Taymor has said: “It was really very simple. I wanted to do the movie of The Tempest and I didn't have an actor at the front of my mind when I was ready to do it. I had always dreamed of working with Helen Mirren and started to think what would happen if we made Prospero female? And it worked. Not every woman could play that role - not every man could play the role of Prospero but you could believe that [Mirren] could be the master of that island.”
Previously cast as Imogen in Cymbeline (1982), both Hermia and Titania in different Midsummer Night's Dream productions (1968, 1981), Rosalind in As You Like It (1978) and Ophelia in Hamlet (1976), multi-award winning actress Dame Helen Mirren is an old-hand at playing Shakespeare.
Mirren explains the appeal of the role of Prospera, saying: “We can see now in extreme fundamentalist states, whatever religion they are, that they want to exclude women from education because an educated woman is a dangerous thing. Women have been punished for being powerful for many centuries and I thought that was the remarkable thing about making Prospero into Prospera - you can bring in the history of the female struggle."
Although acclaimed for her stage work (most notably the musical The Lion King), Taymor's previous films have also been celebrated for their visual imagination. Well received by critics, both Frida (the life of the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo) and Titus (an adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus) were never known for their box-office appeal. It now remains to be seen whether Taymor's past experience in adapting Shakespeare will help her to achieve the same kind of buzz and box-office success Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet enjoyed.
The Tempest is due for release March 4 and co-stars Felicity Jones, Tom Conti, Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, Ben Whishaw, Alfred Molina, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand and Reeve Carney.
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