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Tempest, The (1979)

Courtesy of EuroLondon Films Ltd

Main image of Tempest, The (1979)
35mm (from 16mm), 95 mins, colour
DirectorDerek Jarman
Production CompanyBoyd's Company
ProducersGuy Ford, Mordecai Schreiber
ScreenplayDerek Jarman
Original PlayWilliam Shakespeare
PhotographyPeter Middleton

Cast: Heathcote Williams (Prospero); Karl Johnson (Ariel); Toyah Willcox (Miranda); Peter Bull (Alonso); Richard Warwick (Antonio); Jack Birkett (Caliban); Ken Campbell (Gonzalo); Elisabeth Welch (Goddess)

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In a vast, crumbling mansion, the magician Prospero prepares to take advantage of a conveniently-timed storm...

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Shot on 16mm on a characteristically tiny budget, Derek Jarman's third feature was just as playfully wayward as Sebastiane (co-d. Paul Humfress, 1976) and Jubilee (1978), with which it has rather more in common than any conventional adaptation of a Shakespeare play. There is copious nudity (mostly male, but also the distressingly unforgettable sight of Caliban's mother Sycorax breastfeeding her son), unconventional casting (Toyah Willcox's Miranda hardly suggests innocent purity) and setting (a crumbling mansion as opposed to an island), and an approach to the text that clearly regards it as a springboard rather than a sacrament.

Yet the result is one of the most imaginative of all Shakespeare films, and comes far closer to capturing the play's sense of magic than the lacklustre BBC Television Shakespeare production that was broadcast only a few months after its release. It was a long-term labour of love for Jarman - he'd been obsessed with the play since his schooldays, and had made a serious attempt at getting the film produced in 1974, when his lack of experience counted against him.

Poet, playwright and professional magician Heathcote Williams is an uncharacteristically young but wholly convincing Prospero, and the film seems to be staged as one of his feverish dreams, with his best-known soliloquies delivered in voice-over as Miranda mounts an undersized rocking-horse to create the impression of an excessively prolonged childhood. Jack Birkett's grotesque, raw egg-sucking Caliban made such an impression on Jonathan Miller that he cast him as an equally campy Thersites in his BBC Troilus and Cressida (1981) - the conspiratorial trio that he forms with Stephano and Trinculo (Christopher Biggins and Peter Turner) is as much sinister as comically inept.

The justly celebrated climax is both completely unexpected and strangely appropriate, as the legendary, then 75-year-old Elisabeth Welch (credited only as "A Goddess") appears to sing 'Stormy Weather' while surrounded by sailors dancing the hornpipe and scattering confetti. Exuberantly campy, flamboyantly inventive and mercifully devoid of anything approaching good taste, this is a Tempest decidedly not for all tastes, but it shows what the cinema can bring to Shakespeare in the hands of the right artist.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Tempest, The (1980)
Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)
Radclyffe, Sarah (1950-)
Walker, Lesley
Welch, Elisabeth (1908-2003)
The Tempest On Screen