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  Tempest, The Brave Old/New World
Year: 1979
Director: Derek Jarman
Stars: Heathcoate Williams, Karl Johnson, Toyah Willcox, Jack Birkett, Christopher Biggins, Peter Turner, Ken Campbell, Peter Bull, David Meyer, Neil Cunningham, Richard Warwick, Elisabeth Welch, Claire Davenport, Helen Wellington-Lloyd, Angela Whittingham
Genre: Weirdo, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Prospero (Heathcoate Williams) used to be the rightful Duke of Milan, and he believes he still is, but it's difficult to claim his title and all that goes with it when he has been exiled to an island in the middle of nowhere. But he has cultivated strange powers while he has been there with his daughter Miranda (Toyah Willcox), and tonight while he sleeps he dreams up a tempest that will ensure a ship is wrecked out to sea, all the better for the survivors to wash up on his shore. And if those survivors be the men who tormented and banished him, then that's nothing short of everything he would have wanted, for vengeance is on his mind, all he must do is work out the best method of achieving that.

Unless you counted Forbidden Planet, the nineteen-fifties science fiction version of William Shakespeare's final play The Tempest, which not everyone does considering the liberties taken with it, then director Derek Jarman was the first talent to really tackle the material in cinematic form, though he too took liberties. Prior to this he had made waves with his punk celebration Jubilee, which shared some of the same cast, but you got the impression he was on less judgemental and more solid ground by approaching this as he did, if you could describe such a hard to pin down play as solid. It was certainly one of the strangest works the Bard ever penned, which might be why it has not been often adapted for the screen - it's no Hamlet or Macbeth.

That said, once Jarman had delivered his version there were others to follow, as if he had made alternative creatives think, ah, so it can be done without recourse to Robby the Robot, and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books owed much to his trailblazing, even nicking Jarman's first choice of Prospero in Sir John Gielgud in one of his last roles. Julie Taymor also delivered a version with similar artistic liberties taken, also owing much to Jarman and his iconoclastic stylings, though where she offered a feminist reading of the text by making Prospero a woman played by Dame Helen Mirren, back in 1979 the take was resolutely male homosexual. In case you were in any doubt, the mostly male cast frequently disrobed.

Although prospective punkette pop star Toyah had a topless scene too, just to offer a dose of equality, the most arresting female nudity came from British comedy staple Claire Davenport as Sycorax in a flashback where she suckled Caliban (blind performer Jack Birkett) and tried to do the same to the hapless spirit Ariel (pale and wan Karl Johnson). While you could make a case for Jarman attempting to eroticise the material with bare naked men in the same way he had with his Latin language yarn Sebastiane, he did have a tendency to go full on grotesque, almost playfully, to undercut the more overtly sexual aspects, including a musical finale. Naturally, this was not going to endear him to the purists, and anyone but the most adventurous movie buffs were going to find it hard work too, but it was a singular vision and that can have worth.

It's not as if Jarman had no respect for the source, it was more that he built on it to amuse himself, much as Ken Russell, who he had been a collaborator with at one point, would do with his tackling of the classics, a very British manner of reacting to the possibly intimidating task of bringing Shakespeare out of the theatre. That said, there remained an artificiality to what we were seeing that tended to take you out of the action, or at least feel at one remove from it, which meant that there came a point when you were not immersed in this strange world and noting the texture of the dialogue, and more letting it all just play out before your eyes and watching them get on with making themselves laugh. Was the gay theme even a good fit with The Tempest? You may not be wholly convinced that it was, though it was a mark of how malleable the play could be in its weirdness that it could withstand such pressures on it and remain a perfectly fair incarnation. It may have been cheap, but it did conjure a dreamlike mood that, say, the over-fussy Greenaway didn't accomplish.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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