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The Tempest On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's last solo masterpiece

Main image of The Tempest On Screen

First performed in 1611 and published in the First Folio of 1623, The Tempest was one of Shakespeare's last plays (and generally agreed to be his last solo effort, the later Henry VIII being a collaboration) and seems to be a wholly original work.

Given its cinematic potential, it is unsurprising that The Tempest has been a perennial favourite with filmmakers, and it has inspired some of the most imaginative British Shakespeare films. The first adaptation, made in 1908 by Percy Stow, is very comfortably the most visually and conceptually inventive of all British silent Shakespeare films. As the twelve-minute running time makes clear, this is a massive truncation of the original text, though Stow does at least attempt to encapsulate the whole play by turning it into a series of brief tableaux. Given the clearly tiny budget, some of the set pieces are very impressive, notably a tempest sequence with the action taking place on two planes.

The second feature film barely qualifies as such - Rafters Players recorded their 1969 stage production on location in Cornwall under the direction of Nicholas Young, who was unable to come up with the level of invention needed to compensate for their limited resources (the project was self-financed).

By contrast, avant-garde filmmaker-painter Derek Jarman's similarly low-budget version a decade later is still regarded as one of the most original of all British Shakespeare films. Relocated to a crumbling mansion off the Scottish coast, and drawing heavily from the spirit of the then-contemporaneous punk era, its typically eclectic cast included the poet Heathcote Williams (Prospero), Toyah Willcox (Miranda), Karl Johnson (Ariel), Peter Bull (Alonso), Ken Campbell (Gonzalo), Christopher Biggins (Stephano) and a particularly memorable Caliban from Jack Birkett. It concludes with an final-scene appearance by Elisabeth Welch, whose rendition of 'Stormy Weather' somehow fits the whole bizarre concoction to perfection.

Twelve years later, Peter Greenaway made an even more radical adaptation in the form of Prospero's Books (1991). This was a dual showcase for John Gielgud's onscreen performance as Prospero and for Greenaway's elaborate visual experiments, involving multiple layers of high-definition video images and a concept based around the twenty-four books said to have accompanied Prospero to the island. Crammed with provocative visual and conceptual ideas, it is arguably barely comprehensible to those unfamiliar with the play, as Greenaway's images tend to swamp rather than illuminate the text (much of which is delivered offscreen, with Gielgud performing all the parts). The dancer Michael Clark comes across most effectively as Caliban: the rest of the supporting cast have largely decorative roles.

The play has had a rather more chequered history on television. On 5 February 1939, Dallas Bower staged a 90-minute version whose distinguished cast - including John Abbott (Prospero), George Devine (Caliban) and Peggy Ashcroft (Miranda) - was apparently not matched by a production riddled with technical slip-ups: at one stage an attempt at superimposition was marred by the onscreen appearance of a prop man. However, in common with virtually all BBC television broadcasts of the pre-war era, it was a live performance and has not been recorded.

The BBC returned to the play twice in the 1950s. 10 May 1951 saw the transmission of a version adapted for children by Rex Tucker and starring Godfrey Kenton, Carol Marsh, Julian Somers and Dorothy Gordon. The decade's second version was broadcast on 14 October 1956 - produced by Robert and Ian Atkins, it starred Robert Eddison, Anna Barry, Patti Brooks and Robert Atkins. Preserved as a telerecording, it illustrates the drawbacks of many early Shakespeare TV adaptations - good ideas outweighed by technical shortcomings and the pressures of live broadcasts.

The next two television versions were pre-recorded, and consequently far more assured on a technical level. Both produced by Cedric Messina, the black-and-white Play of the Month (tx. 12 May 1968) and the colour BBC Television Shakespeare production (tx. 27/2/1980). Both suffer from Messina's conservative, over-literal approach to the text, and the later production suffered particularly from being broadcast only a few months after the British release of the Derek Jarman feature film. Despite a cast including Michael Hordern (Prospero), Warren Clarke (Caliban) and Nigel Hawthorne, it was a disappointingly staid interpretation, with little of the magic that the text virtually demands.

The play was given a 30-minute animated treatment for the series Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (tx. 16/11/1992). This was the only completed animated version, though George Dunning (best known for Yellow Submarine, 1968) had left his own adaptation uncompleted when he died in 1979.

Michael Powell never made his long-planned Tempest, but his 1969 film Age of Consent, shows clear parallels, being about a disenchanted artist (James Mason) who rediscovers his inspiration when he meets the beautiful Cora (Helen Mirren), but their idyllic existence is threatened by the coarse Caliban-like Nat Kelly (Jack MacGowran).

1908, d. Percy Stow
1969, d. Nicholas Young
1979, d. Derek Jarman
Prospero's Books, 1991, d. Peter Greenaway

BBC, tx. 5/2/1939
BBC, tx. 10/5/1951 (children's adaptation)
BBC, tx. 14/10/1956
Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 12/5/1968, d. Basil Coleman
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 27/2/1980, d. John Gorrie

Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, BBC2, tx. 16/11/1992, d. Stanislav Sokolov

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 22/2/1980 , p. Laurens van der Post
Shakespeare Lives, Channel 4, tx. 16 & 23/2/1983, p. Michael Bogdanov

Other References
Age of Consent, 1969, d. Michael Powell

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Tempest, The (1908)

Tempest, The (1908)

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Thumbnail image of Tempest, The (1979)

Tempest, The (1979)

Derek Jarman's wildly imaginative version of Shakespeare's play

Thumbnail image of Tempest, The (1980)

Tempest, The (1980)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

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