“THE TEMPEST”— Derek Jarman Takes on Shakespeare

“The Tempest”
Derek Jarman Takes on Shakespeare
Amos Lassen

Before I say something about the way Derek Jarman interprets Shakespeare, let me give you a short summary of what “The Tempest” is about.
“Prospero, a potent magician, lives on a desolate isle with his virginal daughter, Miranda. He’s in exile, banished from his duchy by his usurping brother and the King of Naples. Providence brings these enemies near; aided by his vassal the spirit Ariel, Prospero conjures a tempest to wreck the Italian ship. The king’s son, thinking all others are lost, becomes Prospero’s prisoner, falling in love with Miranda and she with him. Prospero’s brother and the king wander the island, as do a drunken cook and sailor, who conspire with Caliban, Prospero’s beastly slave, to murder Prospero. Prospero wants reason to triumph, Ariel wants his freedom, Miranda [wants] a husband; the sailors [just] want to dance”.
Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is a play with themes of freedom, temperance, repentance, and forgiveness. The basic difference between Shakespeare’s play and Derek Jarman’s film is the time difference between the two men. They are separated by four hundred years of time, culture and theatrics. Jarman is loyal to the play linguistically and the dialog is a bit difficult to understand at times but the play is basically all here and what the understanding of language lacks is made up for by brilliant cinematography and the performances of the actors. Of course there are Shakespeare loyalists who will be offended by this film because it is not in sync with the original but there are also those who enjoy Shakespearean adaptations.
Some see the film as a gay fantasy filled with camp costumes, a nude Ferdinand and sexual tension between Ariel and Prospero and as a finale, we get an octet of sailors dancing. This is a film of images, some fantastic and some very dark (Ariel as he is pulled to a nude to help her perform her duties on earth).Others see it as a retelling of the original as a dream of vengeance that while it may worry purists will satisfy those of us who are open-minded and free thinkers. The film takes us to places we have never been. Shakespeare wrote plays of ideas and those ideas are related to us in rich and beautiful language and the characters arise of this. “The Tempest” is full of ideas. Jarman forsakes the ideas and goes to the characters. In doing so, some of the beauty of the play is lost and only the obvious is emphasized.
 The photography and staging are beautiful and this is a difficult piece to stage but Jarman showed that by using film, he could overcome those difficulties. Jarman’s production is a punk symphony performed by an able cast—Heathcote Williams as Prospero, Toyah Willcox as Miranda, and Karl Johnson as Ariel. Then there are  the bits that are added and that fit in well, especially Elisabeth Welch’s appearance singing “Stormy Weather”. There is comedy given to us by Ken Campbell and Christopher Biggins as the shipwrecked drunks finding themselves on Prospero’s enchanted island, with Jack Birkett as a creepy Caliban.
Much of the film is unexpected and it is inventive and everything comes wrapped in a sense of queer consciousness. He took liberties with the original text. He  relocated the main body of the work from the shores of a remote island to a candle-lit abbey style mansion yet he managed to keep the original intact. The story of how Prospero, the right Duke of Milan as usurped by his brother Antonio with the support of Alonso, the King of Naples, wreaks revenge by commanding Ariel, a powerful spirit to raise a tempestuous storm to shipwreck those who conspired against him, only for Prospero’s daughter Miranda to fall in love with Ferdinand, son of his sworn enemy, the King of Naples is all there.
This version may be offbeat but it startles the eyes with its costumes, its sets, its lighting and the way Jarman presents the characters. Writing about it really does no justice—the film demands to be seen.