The Tempest at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

William Hutt as Prospero in the 2005 Stratford Festival production; the poster hangs in our study

Before we get to this year’s Tempest [summer 2010], we hark back to Stratford, Ontario in August 2005, where we saw what turned out to be one of the last stage performances of the late William Hutt. We remember it well. 

Late in the first act of The Tempest, Mr. Hutt, as Prospero, had thoroughly captivated his daughter Miranda (and the rest of us) with the story of how he had been supplanted as Duke of Milan by his treacherous brother Antonio and how Prospero and Miranda had been exiled to their Mediterranean island. Then, after charming Miranda into sleep, Prospero summoned the spirit Ariel to report on the seastorm she had conjured up to bring Antonio and his traveling companions to the island.

Christopher Plummer as Prospero in the Stratford Festival's 2010 production

Emsworth’s companion five years ago was his son; the night before, we had seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  We were riveted by Mr. Hutt’s performance. With his musical voice and expressive, perfectly timed pauses, he made Elizabethan English seem as easy to understand as Dr. Seuss.

Unfortunately, our son, still a college student, was suffering from a summer cold. We armed him with cough suppressants. But when Mr. Hutt took one of his trademark pauses, in the course of reminding the ungrateful Ariel how she had been liberated from the hag Sycorax, the breathless silence in the Festival Theatre was broken with a loud cough from the third row, stage left.

Mr. Hutt seemed not to hear or notice, and we waited for him to go on. But the 85-year old actor kept holding his pose. The pause lengthened; audience members began to glance at one another. After half a minute, we heard a low female voice say a few words from under the front of the stage. Mr. Hutt took a breath, changed his pose, and delivered the line he had been given by his prompter. The performance resumed.

Our son was of course mortified; his cough had made an acting legend forget his lines. But the glitch made Mr. Hutt’s stunning performance all the more memorable.

Prospero (Christopher Plummer) and his affectionate daughter Miranda (Trish Lindström)

This year’s portrayal of the marooned magician-duke by Christopher Plummer, who at 80 is younger by five years than Mr. Hutt was, is every bit as fine as Mr. Hutt’s. Every phrase from Mr. Plummer hits its mark; he delivers Shakespeare with intense clarity. Mr. Plummer’s Prospero seems earthier and more irrascible, a ruler who wields near-absolute power with utter confidence. Mr. Hutt’s Prospero, if we remember it rightly, was more lyrical.

But The Tempest is not nearly — we know this is heresy — the best Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival this year.  The Winter’s Tale is more thoroughly satisfying and more entertaining (see our thoughts on it at this post), a judgment informally confirmed by various other theater-goers we met at random in Stratford. (We haven’t yet seen As You Like It.) When Mr. Plummer was on stage, we were spellbound, but he is off-stage for good parts of the play, and those parts didn’t match up.

In fact, after intermission, the pace seemed to lag and the play seemed to lose energy. This was especially so in the scenes involving Antonio (John Vickery), Alonso (Peter Hutt), and the other shipwrecked noblemen. The most engaging of the minor characters in the play ought to be Gonzalo (James Blendick), the old counselor who ensured that Prospero was provided with his beloved books to accompany him in his exile. But although the playwright meant us to understand that Gonzalo (like Polonius in Hamlet) is a tedious talker, he surely intended that the character would in fact endear rather than bore.

The scenes with Trinculo (Bruce Dow) and Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies) were lively and entertaining, as these actors have superb comic timing and were at the top of their game. Jarringly, however, Mr. Dow chose, or was directed, to play Alonso’s jester as a lisping, limp-wristed queen. We couldn’t imagine why.

Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo) with Prospero (Mr. Plummer)

The special effects were excellent, especially those involving Ariel, played by Julyana Soelistyo, a tiny, seriously talented acrobat and actress who seemed to be in the air more than on the stage. But it seemed out of character for Prospero to be performing cheap magic tricks — the Duke of Milan wasn’t that kind of magician. And we couldn’t help thinking, not for the first time after seeing a Shakespeare play directed by Des McAnuff, that he was counting on gimmicks to keep his audiences interested.

Aside from Mr. Plummer’s Prospero, the character who grabbed our attention was Dion Johnstone’s Caliban, who glided around the set on four limbs with unhuman, fluid ease, much as we had always imagined Tolkien’s Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In fact, we came to think that Caliban was a literary ancestor of Gollum.  Just as Caliban whined about the island that Prospero had “stolen” from him, Gollum whined obsessively about the ring that Bilbo Baggins had “stolen” from him. And when we saw how devoted Caliban was to his new master, Stephano, and how much he disliked and resented Stephano’s companion, Trinculo, we remembered exactly the same dynamic between Gollum, his “master” Frodo, and Sam Gamgee (whom Gollum despised) during their trek to Mordor.

We were bemused to see that they’re making a new Hollywood version of The Tempest that will star Helen Mirren as Prospera.

Christopher Plummer writes In Spite of Myself

christopher-plummer-in-spite-of-myself4Literature it’s not, but what a read! Christopher Plummer has written a memoir of his life on the stage, on the movie set, and in the bedroom. We were riveted by every page of stage gossip and titillating reminiscences.

In Spite of Myself reads in Mr. Plummer’s own voice; there’s no trace of a ghost-writer. He begins with his childhood in Montreal, where his mother read him the Just So Stories and The Wind and the Willows (just what Emsworth read to his own children!) and the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (introduced to Emsworth by his favorite college professor). She also took him to the theater (his first play: J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, another of our favorites).

diana-barrymorePlummer studied piano but was upstaged by a more talented high school classmate, Oscar Peterson. Still underage, he began to hang out at Montreal nightclubs, where he met an alcoholic Diana Barrymore, who asked her to escort him to a posh after-dinner party. As Plummer remembers it,

I boldly sat down at the piano, hoping to accompany Diana in a French song or two. She winked at me and took up the cue. As was her custom, she had decked herself out in a daringly revealing low-cut dress. In the middle of a song in order to emphasize a phrase, she made a sweeping theatrical gesture, miles over the top, when suddenly, not just one but two glorious breasts popped out in full view and stayed out for the rest of the number.

That’s on page 49; this 650-page book is full of juicy bits like this.

And his amours! For the most part, Plummer names names. By his account, he has enjoyed the favors of scores of beautiful women (besides his three wives) over his long life.

His show-business stories (not all of which involve him personally) are marvelous. One that tickled our fancy has to do with the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, whom Plummer saw in Montreal as a teenager:

The Australian, Percy Grainger, came to town very often — declined hotels and insisted on sleeping on his piano in a studio at Steinway Hall. He was most eccentric and would play only two encores: “The Man I Love,” as if Grieg had written it, and his own “Country Gardens.”

plummer-and-andrews1For the most part, Plummer’s gossip is good-humored; several accounts of nasty behavior by show business colleagues omit names. One is left in awe of the sheer numbers of distinguished actors, directors, playwrights, and producers, from Noel Coward and David Selznick to Katharine Hepburn and Julie Andrews, that Plummer has known during his career.

And there’s plenty in this book about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), which is clearly close duke-ellington-such-sweet-thunder-stratford-dedicationto Plummer’s heart, as well as about Plummer’s work in England and on Broadway. Did you know that Duke Ellington dedicated his 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder to the Stratford Festival? Plummer met Ellington when the composer, doing research for his album, was in Stratford monitoring a rehearsal of Hamlet.  The dedication’s right there on the front cover.

One does not have to believe all of Plummer’s stories to enjoy them. (Did Grainger really sleep on his piano?) At one point Plummer tells of a Montreal music critic who fell asleep, missed a performance by Horowitz, wrote a glowing review of a performance he did not hear, and only discovered afterward that the maestro had become ill and did not play. Over the years we have heard other versions of such a story, with different performances and critics; no doubt Plummer thinks he is telling the original.

Another tale that tested our credulity involved an affair between the young Plummer and a married actress. According to Plummer, he and the lady were making love on a chair in a dressing room when the lady’s husband walked in and engaged them in casual conversation. Supposedly, the husband never suspected what was happening, because the lovers’ lower limbs were fully covered by the woman’s long, full gown. It’s clear that’s how Plummer remembers the incident. But it’s hard to believe it happened quite that way.

We expect that it is because Emsworth has raved for years about Plummer’s performance as Lear at the Stratford Festival in 2002 that one of our daughters knew to snap up a copy of In Spite of Myself plummer-as-lear-with-company1for our Christmas stocking. In fact, Plummer’s King Lear remains the high point of our theater-going career. Plummer’s ribald, swaggering king seemed to us exactly what the Bard had in mind. And with Plummer, the language barrier simply disappeared; he rendered Shakespeare’s immortal lines so naturally that he might have been speaking twenty-first century American.