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The Scrivener: No Frills, No Liberties

…The Tempest", remember, is a stage play, not a sci-fi scramble. To harrypotterise it would suffocate its meaning and message…

Brian Barratt introduces us to a film version of Shakespeare’s magical film The Tempest, and another film which is a liberal interpretation of the play.

This is the fifth and final article in a series of articles about The Tempest. To read the previous four, and many other satisfying and enlightening columns by Brian, please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And you are missing a great deal of intellectual fun if uou fail to visit Brian’s Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

It would be possible, given a large budget, for a film maker to produce a spectacular version of William Shakespeare's play "The Tempest". No doubt there are dramatic rocky landscapes in New Zealand which could serve as the setting. A suitably revolting Caliban could be created by CGI, computer generated imagery. Ariel and other supernatural sprites would give the CGI experts a fascinating and worthwhile challenge.

However, this hasn't been done. The most spectacular version produced so far is probably Peter Greenaway's controversial "Prospero's Books" (1991). It isn't so much a version of the actual story as a liberal interpretation, famous or infamous for the number of naked people it features. CGI was not fully developed at the time but Greenaway used something called Quantel Paintbox along with very high definition video, calligraphy, and multiple screen panels. The visual result is, for some viewers, confusing and overwhelming. One critic described it as "dramatically useless". For other film-fans, it is stunningly beautiful.

The real feature of Greenaway's film is that the role of Prospero is played by Sir John Gielgud, the greatest speaker of the English language in the 20th century. He was 87 years old at the time. To see him and to listen to his glorious voice and diction is, or was, one of the greatest experiences one could have in cinema. Alas, one cannot have it on DVD because the film has not been issued on DVD.

The only version of the play still available on DVD seems to be the 1979 BBC production, which was first screened in 1980. It doesn't have Sir John Gielgud but it stars an excellent substitute: Sir Michael Hordern. He had a long and fruitful career, acting in more than 150 films. He was aged about 68 when he featured in this film and was able to enter and convey the role beautifully.

For some viewers, the setting might be too bleak and too stagey, and the acting might seem wooden. OK, so in recent films and TV series we've been inundated by elaborate settings, rapid movement and noisy acting. "The Tempest", remember, is a stage play, not a sci-fi scramble. To harrypotterise it would suffocate its meaning and message. This version steers an elegant path between stage and film.

It's one of those films where someone appears and you immediately think, I know that face, I saw him/her in... who is it? Well, here are some of the faces you'll see:

The beast Caliban is played by Warren Clarke, justly famed for his portrayal of the grumpy police inspector in the TV series "Dalziel and Pascoe".

You probably won't recognise the actor who plays Ariel, the supernatural sprite. We don't recognise people we've seen before but have never seen them naked, or nearly naked, and covered in gold paint. He is David Dixon, who played Ford Prefect in the original 1981 BBC version of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".

The genial Gonzalo, ever the optimist, is portrayed by John Nettleton. Who? You've never heard of him? You probably didn't read the credits when you watched "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister" even for the third time. He played Sir Humphrey Appleby's friend, the snooty Sir Arnold.

Nigel Hawthorne of "Yes Minister" fame is there, too. He plays, with great delight, Stephano, the drunken butler. His companion Trinculo, also a drunkard, is Andrew Sachs, renowned for his role as the Spanish waiter Manuel in "Fawlty Towers".

Pippa Guard plays Prospero's daughter Miranda. She was about 27 at the time, somewhat too old to convince us that she is a 15-year-old girl. However, her acting is beautiful. She happens to be the cousin of Dominic Guard, who acted in the glorious Australian film "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and also portrayed the lead character in "The Go Between". His brother Christopher Guard plays Ferdinand, the romantic prince, in this production of "The Tempest".

The various sprites are somewhat disappointing but that's probably because the director chose to present them in a sort of pre-Raphaelite style. The graceful ladies are dressed in fussy flowing robes and the gentlemen wear only a piece of string and a little cloth bag to conceal their ample gibbosities. Sprites they are not.

As far as I've been able to check, the film-script closely follows the original play. That's good. Liberties haven't been taken with Shakespeare's glorious words and language. Overall, this film is a very useful auxiliary to the printed word.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009

Sources checked while compiling this compendium of five essays:

— Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite, DVD.
— Oxford English Dictionary, CD-ROM version 2, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ayto, John, Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins, Bloomsbury, London 1990
Boyce, Charles, Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, Facts on File, New York, 1990
Gorrie, John, director, The Tempest, DVD, BBC Shakespeare Collection, 1996 (?)
Hinman, C., ed., The Norton Facsimile, The First Folio of Shakespeare, Second edition, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, 1996.
Patenaude, Allan, The Tempest, HBJ Shakespeare, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Toronto 1990
Room, Adrian, Brewer's Dictionary of Names, Cassell, Oxford 1992
Rosenthal, Daniel, Shakespeare on Screen, Hamlyn, London 2000
Various, Wikipedia


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