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Christopher Plummer as Prospero and Trish Lindstrom as Miranda in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's The Tempest. (David Hou/Stratford Shakespeare Festival)
Christopher Plummer as Prospero and Trish Lindstrom as Miranda in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's The Tempest. (David Hou/Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

Warren Clements: On demand

The Tempest: Still fresh at 400 Add to ...

It's a tale you can easily imagine an ambitious producer pitching to a Hollywood studio in this age of computer-generated fantasies.

Power-hungry villains depose a duke and cast him adrift in an unseaworthy boat with his three-year-old daughter. Duke and daughter arrive on a deserted island, only to find that a now-dead witch has imprisoned a sprite in a tree and the witch's son, named Caliban, is running amok. The duke frees the sprite, persuades the son to teach him the witch's secrets and, when the officials who deposed him sail too close to the island 12 years later, orders the sprite to whip up a storm and forces everyone who staggers ashore to play a variation on Survivor.

You want romance? One of the villains has a son who takes an instant and unmistakably requited shine to Prospero's daughter, Miranda. How about a musical? Ariel, the sprite, knows some great songs, including one that begins "Full fathom five thy father lies" and gave the world the expression "sea change." Fancy a lusty hymn to freedom? Prospero, the deposed-duke-turned-magician, promises to set Ariel free if the sprite helps him baffle and bewilder the shipwrecked passengers.

Yes, it's Shakespeare's The Tempest, and it has everything, including a lewd interlude with buffoons that Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers could fight over. Small wonder the 1611 play has been filmed more than a dozen times since 1908, either as itself or, in Paul Mazursky's 1982 film Tempest, as a modern story loosely inspired by the work. (John Cassavetes plays a grumpy soul astonishingly immune to the charms of Susan Sarandon.)

By coincidence, about a year after Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren co-starred in 2009's The Last Station as Leo Tolstoy and his wife, both actors took on the role of Prospero. Mirren played him as a woman (renamed Prospera) in Julie Taymor's 2010 film of The Tempest. Plummer played him at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival last year under the direction of Des McAnuff, and, as with the 2009 McAnuff-Plummer collaboration on Caesar and Cleopatra, the stage production was filmed for presentation in theatres and on television. This week, it arrived on DVD.

The chief attraction is unquestionably Plummer. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, he bestrides the stage like a colossus, energizing every scene he touches, turning in an instant from amusement to fury, and delivering Shakespeare's English as if it had been coined the day before.

Since he is all but absent from the second and third acts, much of the play rests on other shoulders. More to the point, it rests on other characters, in conspiratorial subplots. In one, two villainous castaways scheme to kill the similarly shipwrecked King of Naples. In another, Caliban is furious with Prospero and tries to persuade a drunken butler named Stephano and a jester named Trinculo to murder his master.

That scene is the play's comic relief. It is no slight against the actors that Shakespeare milks the puns and pratfalls for what seems an eternity. On the other hand, it is diverting to hear Bruce Dow, as Trinculo, deliver a couple of his lines as a spot-on impression of Paul Lynde. ("By this good light, this is a very shallow monster!")

The special effects are effective, on film as on stage. Ariel floats. Weapons fly from surprised hands. The settings of Ariel's songs are hauntingly beautiful. Subtitles would have been helpful in the opening shipwreck scene, when the voices are one small part of the sonic design, but the DVD doesn't offer them. Still, no matter. Rumour has it the play is still in print.

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