Stratford on Film: Martha Henry's Prospero softens a Shakespearean grand-old-man role

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-minus

At last summer’s Stratford Festival, Martha Henry, at age 80, took on one of theatre’s best-known grand old man roles – Prospero in The Tempest.. It was 56 years after she debuted at the festival in the same play in the ingenue role of Miranda.

Thanks to the ongoing Stratford-on-Film series, a record of her performance can be seen in Cineplex cinemas across the country starting Saturday. Henry’s Prospero is more a sage magistrate than vengeful sorceress, setting the tone for a production of temperate emotional intensity, embellished by director Antoni Cimolino’s audience-tickling flourishes.

Prospero (Martha Henry) dispenses sage advice to daughter Miranda (Mamie Zwettler)

Prospero (Martha Henry) dispenses sage advice to daughter Miranda (Mamie Zwettler)

Prospero here is the former of Duchess of Milan, and now a ruler without subjects on a desert island. Twelve years before, she was betrayed by her brother Antonio, and cast out to sea with her daughter, now a young adult (Mamie Zwettler).

They live on their desert island, using magic to rule over a pair of supernatural slaves, the shape-shifting sprite, Ariel, played by Andre Morin (whose supple performance is a highlight of the production) and the monster Caliban, played by Michael Blake, in an interesting-but-why? semi-costume that suggests the sexy sea creature from the film The Shape of Water.

The Tempest toggles between subplots and character sets, including shipwrecked nobles (Graham Abbey, David Collins, Andre Sills and Rod Beattie), full of cynical quips and plots. They are mirrored by two clowns, Stephano and Trinculo (Stratford’s expert veterans Tom McCamus and Stephen Ouimette), who encounter Caliban to form a squabbling drunken ensemble.

On yet another part of the island, the dewy and breathless young couple Miranda and Ferdinand (Sebastien Hinds) meet and fall in love, a union which compels Prospero to forgive her former enemies.

Apart from the root-entwined ionic entrance to Prospero’s cell, designer Bretta Gereche saves the visual pop for the play’s second half, including a projected image of a screaming harpy in Act III and the next act’s conjured vision of the three pagan goddesses (Lucy Peacock, Chick Reid and Alexis Gordon) trailing ballgown trains like Rose Bowl floats.

Things grow more purposeful as the play comes to a close. Events are distilled down to one actor on a bare stage. Henry faces her audience, emphasizing the sincerity of Prospero’s request for the audience’s applause to emancipate her from island of the stage: (“...Release me from my bands with the help of your good hands.”). You could think of it as the precursor of Peter Pan’s “clap if you believe in fairies” stunt three centuries later. But it’s also a moving reminder of theatre as a social ritual, a place where actors and audiences exchange emotional gifts.

The Tempest. Directed for the screen by Barry Avrich. Directed for the stage by Antoni Cimolino. Starring Martha Henry, Mamie Zwettler, Andre Morin, Michael Blake, Tom McCamus, Stephen Ouimette, Sebastien Hinds, Graham Abbey, David Collins, Andre Sills and Rod Beattie. The Tempest scan be seen at select Cineplex theatres across Canada, including Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, Yonge-Eglinton, Queensway and Empress Walk cinemas.