The pagan confusion in Jarman’s “The Tempest”

Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979), his first cinematic attempt at Shakespeare adaptation, is steeped in an inexplicable pagan etherealism. The film opens with a list of the dramatis personae along with the Stephen Crane editorial descriptions of each of the characters. This is perhaps an attempt on Jarman’s part to recreate the readerly experience of knowing precisely how each character relates to another without even being introduced to them yet. Once shipwrecked, many of them wander throughout the island in class-based groups (the nobles, the drunken servants). However, part of the intellectual exercise of this play is the slow unravelling of the relationships between characters. This opening is our first clue that Jarman does not see it that way, and will go on to emphasize individual characters rather than intersubjective relationships.

Derek Jarman's "The Tempest"
Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest”

The only thing in this film that remains honest to the source text is the casting of Ariel (Karl Johnson), Prospero’s helpful island spirit, as male. (Since the Victorian period Ariel is predominantly cast as female despite the use of male pronouns in the playtext.) Prospero (Heathcote Williams), written as a wizened and elderly father, is cast extremely young. In fact, one could make the mistake of him being a brother, not a father, to Miranda (Toyah Willcox). The Caliban (Jack Birkett) character is equally unremarkable. For him, Jarman emphasizes a Post-Colonial class reading of him as a slave rather than beastly: he is not particularly deformed or different than any other human person, with bad teeth, sunken eyes, and noticeable accent Like most of the cast, Prospero has an especially flat academic and unremarkable delivery.

The cast seems to have been coached specifically in a stylized diction which is very staid, dry and flat. While nearly an all-male cast, some especially deep voices are prone to muttering and petering out at the end of lines. Most of the dialogue is indecipherable due to this lack of inflection, suggesting a lack of care for the script. Dialogue seems to serve the only purpose of sonically coloring the scenes that are intermittently punctuated by Caliban’s maniacal laughter–insane, inane, and often wholly inexplicable.

It is hard to miss the general disdain or dislike of women in the film. While Shakespeare’s play does only have one female role–and two women are made reference to but never appear–Jarman seems to tug out these in particular. More than half of the original text is cut, along with several characters, and so it is really not much of a surprise that most of Miranda’s speaking line are cut. She merely serves to wander around the set in semi-dreadlocks like an adult child with intermittent moments of toplessness.

Likewise, the shipwrecked court of Naples wander about the island to no purpose but to expound theories of procreation and “natural” governance, interrupted by attempts to murder the Duke. While the court is only in a handful of shots, Jarman makes sure to emphasize the Duke’s dismay at being stranded on his return trip from marrying off his daughter to a foreign prince–so much so that he wishes he never had a daughter to marry off in the first place. Much is made of Sycorax (Claire Davenport) when only passing reference is made to this witch-monster and mother of Ariel and Caliban. Instead of leaving his audience to their own imagination, Jarman includes an extended flashback of Sycorax and her brood literally chained to her in a scene of grotesque and gratuitous nudity. While Caliban is made to salivates on his mother’s breast while Ariel’s fights his literal chains of primordial incest, she reminds me of a kind of female Jabba-the-Hutt. There are no vindicating women in the film to speak.

First still from Taymor's "Tempest"
Mirren working magic for Taymor’s “Tempest”

What can be said for Jarman’s film is the clear aesthetic vision: sets mostly draped in darkness, what we do see is of a neo-Victorian flair constructed of feathers and highly naturalized. For example, Miranda’s hoop-skirt is made of long ostrich feathers, and from those bizarre dreadlocks hang pearls like tear drops. In fact, everyone seems a bit feral in the film as they crouch about in the thrush- and straw-covered mansion. Caliban giggles as he eats raw eggs. Many characters exist to deliver environmental monologues and often in voice-over. Miranda’s only dialogue and that of many others are environmental monologues, often in voice-over. Ferdinand, the love interest, rises up out of the sea inexplicably naked like primordial slime come to form. If you can keep track of Ariel’s mutterings, you could track the plot development but otherwise the film seems purposeless.

The naturalizing techniques are thrown in contrast to Venetian/Italianate accessories. For example, the wandering drunkards end up at the home of Prospero and loose themselves, along with Caliban, in a room filled with over-sized porcelain dolls, rocking horses, toys, and Carnival masks. There is a clear interest in wilderness and a semi-naturalness rather than the plot itself. All of these juxtaposing images collide in the final pageant masque to celebrate the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda (anachronistically moved to the end of the film). Dozens of men in child-like sailor suits run and dance about in pairs to flute arias and bird song. The Naples court sleeps through it all, having somehow found their way. The drunkards stumble into the reunion half nude, covered in feathers, and dressed in drag but not much is made of them either. In the midst of marriage all are reunited. However, Prospero’s usurping brother is not present and there is no reconciliation to speak of to resolve the reason why he and his daughter came to the island in the first place. Miranda has lost her dreadlocks and slowly made civilized in her dress by her union with Ferdinand. The only remnants of her earthy state is a wedding ring made of shell. In a final stroke of absurdity, jazz singer Elisabeth Welch enters to sing “Stormy Weather” (see the clip below). She walks to each of the male dancing sailors, partnered up, and sings to them but ignores the wedding couple completely. The film ends with Ariel singing to himself in an empty room, and Prospero sitting asleep while a voice-over mutters, “we are such stuff as dreams are made of.” The credits roll silently and austerely.

This film is painful, not only to watch, but also emotionally for the viewer. The viewer feels negatively implicated in wanting some cohesion, some meaning to be made from a play that, ironically, adheres strictly to the classical unities of action, place, and time. Jarman works to thrust apart any sense of unity in this film, and then camp-ify the final scene of resolution as an inditement of heteronormativity. A fair critique, but the film does not hold up thirty years later. It is slow, trying, and ceases to make meaning for multiple kinds and types of audiences.

The supernatural qualities and tight texture of Shakespeare’s The Tempest have attracted artists and painters since the eighteenth century, and more recently filmmakers. There are nearly a dozen film iterations. Jarman seems to have been caught up in the magical qualities of this play, but pushed to hard in searching for places to draw it out fantasy where none existed. Now that Helen Mirren’s Prospera has finally got a release date from Miramax (after its own tempestuous sale by Disney), we can only hope Julie Taymor hasn’t fallen prey to the same allure of her own cinematic illusionary capabilities at the sacrifice of her source.


  • This film is available from Netflix.
  • In Chicago, The Tempest, by William Shakespeare and performed by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, will be staged only on 30 April and 1 May 2011.

The unsettling errors of Abrahams’ “Big Business”

This fall the Court Theatre, the professional theatre at the University of Chicago, is mounting a production of The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, helmed by avant-garde director Sean Graney. Because he is noted for dynamic and unconventional staging, I was interested to see how this play had any film history. Low and behold, outside the Kenneth Branagh oeuvre I found reference to a Jim Abrahams comedy featuring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler based on Shakespeare’s play, called Big Business (1988). The film’s vested interest seems to be not in the relationships or struggle for identity at the center of Shakespeare’s play, but uses the trope of multiple twins and body switches in order to juxtapose the glorified and pastoralized fictional town of Jupiter Hollow to the gratuitous evil of New York City—and yet the entire film takes place in the Plaza Hotel at the heart of the “evil” city.

Lily Tomlin, playing both twins Rose Ratliff and Rose Shelton, epitomizes love of the picket-fence country mystique. In fact, her bumpkin Beau Roone Dimmick (Fred Ward) is allowed to monologue to the homosexual corporate executives on the beauty and values of Jupiter Hollow. Encased by the concrete jungle, Roone’s audience “ooh” and “aww” while he asks for his sushi to be thrown back in the fryer. Throughout the film the city is demonized all the while the characters enjoy the fruits of New York luxury: the anti-urban rhetoric becomes somewhat deafening. In fact, Lily Tomlin’s characters are rarely seen without some luxurious food item in hand, and she is often mocked for “making love to the desert cart.”

The film goes to great lengths to cultivate stereotypical New York snobbery in contrast to the pastoral dialogue. This is epitomized in a scene in which the bumpkin half of Bette Midler’s character, Sadie Ratliff (mirrored by Moramax company president and socialite Sadie Shelton), tries to hail a cab. Countless times does she succeed, but only to have it nabbed from her by other New Yorkers. Finally she hits a man over the head with her purse in order to keep her cab; the camera shows the man smiling in approval at her big-city gumption as the cab streaks off with Sadie finally inside. While the film doesn’t seem to end with a vote explicitly for any particular lifestyle, both sets of sister get the lifestyle they desire. The merits of the city are never explicitly touted, and the film feels ideologically lopsided in part because of this.

In general, this film feels more like a collision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Errors in the way it deals with relationships. All four sisters eventually trade up their complicated romantic relationships for each other’s—and it is no surprise that they are all heteronormative. Riffing on play that purposefully puns on narrative structure and the inherent plot holes that result, the most confusing and unsettling hole left by the film is the exchange of these relationships in the last scene of the film. Both of Bette Midler’s characters are big-city women and one gets an Italian mogul and the other the formers divorcée. Rose Shelton (the reformed big-city girl but rustic at heart) gets her twin Rose Ratliff’s boyfriend, bumpkin Roone, in exchange for the formers doctor beau. Note: both men attempt to propose marriage to the wrong Rose in the course of the film.

This swapping of rejected or would-be spouses is one of the many unsettling elements of the film. If the doctor (Michael Gross) was willing to propose marriage to one Rose, is it so easy to believe he would be so quick to let her go for a more parochial look-alike? Are we to assume there would be nothing odd about one Sadie adopting the other Sadie’s ex-husband (Barry Primus) on the only premise that she is a much better mother than her twin? These relationships seem a little too complicated, with a little too much emotional baggage, to just be counted as another body switch.

There are two typical Shakespearean plot elements that, interestingly enough, have nothing to do with the source texts. First, there are no parents present whatsoever in the majority of the film, although references are made to marriage and wanting children. CEO Sadie has a spoiled son named Sly, but she shows little interest in him. In Shakespeare’s version, parents frame the narrative of the play, and ends with a reunion between spouses and one set of children. (The Dromio slave twins never meet there parents and no one seems concerned about it either.) Secondly, is the inclusion of the well-meaning hotel desk clerk who has a little fling with bumpkin Sadie is left un-partnered by the end of the film, and serves as another site for irresolution. Inspired to take action and pursue Sadie, he does so only to get punched. At the sight of triplets, the same desk clerk passes out, which may have been an attempt by the director to provide some resolution for a character with no doppelganger. His character still sticks out like a sore thumb and would have been best treated like a Malvolio-type from Twelfth Night, which would have given the film a dark comedic edge.

These last scenes, driven home hard by a remark made by the token New York homeless man, suggest we all have a double or other half out there. Is that the big message we are supposed to get out of the film? Is that the point? It rings a bit empty because all of these unsettling and irreconcilable elements have no payoff—like an episode of The Office gone horribly awry. The film opened to lukewarm reviews although it did go on to earn more than $40 million at the domestic box office. Despite the efforts of Tomlin and Midler, the film fails to resonate except for reinforcing especially well worn and distasteful stereotypes of the late 1980s.

Beyond the entertainment value, Big Business fits snuggly in the canon of twentieth century adaptations of Errors that seem to implicitly argue that the play, as it stands, is a simple and unimaginative farce which only works when so many additional periodic trappings. This is an artistically disingenuous move, most evident in the pivotal moment in the film where Sadie and Rose meet their other halves in the hotel bathroom that not even expert comic actresses or improved special effects could save. The problem in this film is not casting or script—which in truth has a few sparkling quips delivered by Bette Midler—but really plot. Where Shakespeare’s play seems to poke fun at the problematics of regimented and formulaic writing, Big Business suffers from those same problems in the perennial but often stagnant Romantic Comedy genre.

While markedly more enjoyable and more thoroughly aware of its source material and led by noted director Barbara Gaines, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s recent staging of Errors also felt it was necessary to add an additional metatheatrical plotline. Set on “the fictional English movie set of Shepperton Studios in the midst of the London blitz to film” Shakespeare’s play, at least this production showed a concern for lost and found identities and kept some crucial elements that make the farce of exponential twins work.

Graney has a penchant for chopping and rearranging, often criticized for being more in love with his dramatic shtick than the play as a holistic performative experience. However, he is a strong reader of early modern drama, if his production of Edward II is any indication, and his dramatic aesthetic sells tickets. The Court is one of the most innovative companies in Chicago right now; their production of Titus Andronicus changed the way I thought about performance and the theatre experience. It will be interesting to see if Graney will follow the trend of problematically adding to Errors plot as a justification to make valuable, or if he will offer an even more paired-down and stylized adaptation working with the complexities this play already offers—something far riskier and potentially far more innovative than any adaptation could offer.