There is a poetic justice and chronological beauty about the Stratford Festival’s production of The Tempest. Its place in history will remain also as the opening night that was cancelled because of a terrorist threat. Indeed it was and the actual opening happened on June 10 instead of the original May 28. But I am not referring to that. I am talking about Martha Henry, actor, director extraordinary. She played Miranda in 1962, her first season at Stratford. This year, fifty six years later, she plays Prospero and gives a masterful and indeed historic performance.
Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino directs the production and he seems to have spared no effort to make it one of the finest in recent memory. He has selected the finest cast and directs with such attention to detail and imaginative outpouring as to make your attention riveted to every aspect of the performance.
Martha Henry. Age has taken its toll on Ms Henry. She appears frail, slightly crouched and one had fears about what type of Prospero she will make. No one need be concerned about her. Her voice is steady and strong, her enunciation clear and her ability to deliver iambic pentameters simply impeccable. This Prospero has aged and gained wisdom and knows when it is time to quit, to break his staff. He has every cause to seek revenge but decides that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance” and forgives his enemies.
The Tempest is a complex play with many layers but one of its main aspects is the growth towards forgiveness and grace. By the end of the performance I felt that a woman playing Prospero is preferable to a man in the role. Henry’s physical frailty and strength of character make a powerful combination for the character of Prospero and for some of the themes of the play. The deposed Prospero who seeks refuge on an island becomes an occupier and deposer herself until the end when all changes.
The island may have four inhabitants, Prospero, Miranda (Mamie Zwettler), Ariel (Andre Morin) and Caliban (Michael Blake) but it has a boatload of Spirits, Monsters, Nymphs, Reapers, Dogs and a Harpy. Not to mention Iris (Chick Reid), Ceres (Alexis Gordon) and Juno (Lucy Peacock.) Cimolino gives full attention and play to all of them in a production that, as I said, nothing is underdone or left out.
Stephen Ouimette as the jester Trinculo and Tom McCamus as the drunk butler Stephano are hilarious and as is usual with good actors steal the show when they are on stage.
Mamie Zwettler as Miranda and Sebastian Heins as Ferdinand are the pure and innocent lovers and we enjoy watching them fall in love and provide for a happy post-Tempest future.
The baddies are Graham Abby as the usurper Antonio who convinces Sebastian (Andre Sills), the equally bad brother of King Alonso, to murder the king. David Collins plays the distraught Alonso, the father of Ferdinand. But there is virtue among evil and it is represented by Gonzalo in a fine performance as usual by Rod Beattie.
There is no effort to make the spirit of the air, Ariel, fly around the theatre but Andre Morin gives us a spirited performance. Michael’s Blake’s Caliban is both nasty and hilarious, especially in his scenes with Stephano and Trinculo.
Cimolino opens the production with Prospero sitting atop of her cell with the scene dominated by the leafless trunk of a tree. She raises her staff and brings about the storm that will wreck the ship and bring the good and bad Italians to the island for the drama to commence. There is no doubt about who controls everything on her island.
The staging, the set designed by Bretta Garecke, the lighting, designed by Michael Walton, the sound design by Thomas Ryder Paine with Berthold Carriere’s music emphasize and indeed celebrate the magical, other-worldly atmosphere of the island.
There are many exquisitely acted and directed scenes. Near the end, when Caliban is freed after being treated roughly, perhaps because he tried to rape Miranda, as he walks by her she puts her hand on his shoulder in a wonderful gesture of forgiveness.
At the end, a trap door opens, the lights are dimmed except in the hole in the stage boards and Prospero throws her staff, her crown, her gown, her books of magic and all she had on the island and she becomes free.
Most of us can only imagine Martha Henry as Miranda in 1962 but no one who saw her will forget her Prospero or Cimolino’s Tempest of 2018.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare opened on June 10 and will run until October 26, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600