restricted access Behind the Scenes: Penn & Teller, Taymor and the Tempest Divide Shakespeare's Globe, London
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Behind the Scenes:
Penn & Teller, Taymor and the Tempest Divide Shakespeare's Globe, London

In 2010, Julie Taymor's film The Tempest was given limited art-house release. Starring Helen Mirren as the re-gendered Prospera, this version relied heavily on computer generated imagery to imagine Shakespeare's complex narrative. The resulting hyperrealism juxtaposed seamlessly with the expressionistic reality of the film's Hawaiian island locations. For its audience, Taymor's Tempest was decidedly twenty-first century in technical and visual appeal. In the film's accompanying glossy book, Taymor references her earliest foray into Tempest direction, her New York City production of 1986. No visual record of this production remains. In 1992, however, a children's television program, fronted by the comedy magicians Penn and Teller, records a one-off reworking of this New York production. Evident in a selection of key scenes, Taymor's artistic vision, with her regular use of masks, magic, and international puppetry techniques, is revealed. Significant for our appreciation of Taymor's development as a Tempest  director is that this low-quality, low-budget video demonstrates how many 2010 filmic innovations already manifested in her original theatrical staging. The storm-tossed shipwreck, now computer generated, mirrored its New York counterpart. Most noticeable, however, is Taymor's 1980s decision to represent Caliban as an oppressed African slave, emerging from the physical structure of the island. Taymor's overtly postcolonial reading of Caliban, strikingly imagined in her 2010 film, reproduces in surprising detail her earliest creative choices. Prospero becomes Prospera, who transitions into a pseudo-bondage dominatrix, but the film still reproduces Taymor's earlier envisioning of the play's racial tensions, as evidenced by an obscure 1980s televisual experience.


Julie Taymor, Tempest, Helen Mirren, Caliban, Postcolonial, Slave, Race, Film

Julie Taymor's 2010 film of The Tempest offers a decidedly expressionistic representation of the storm at sea. Released in a select few cinemas in the UK in March 2011, Taymor's film graphically portrays the storm's growing intensity as waves lash and thunder cracks over the sixteenth-century galleon bearing Antonio and his co-conspirators. The vessel is tossed and torn by the relentless localized tempest. Crew and passengers jostle on deck, their fear and panic heightened by the apparent purposefulness of this fatal event. The theatricality of the moment is made hyper-real by filmic techniques that accentuate the actuality of shipwreck. Mariners struggle to survive in their alien element, with nature unleashing its full fury against them. The cinema audience become voyeuristic onlookers as the tragedy unfolds. A visceral sense of horror accompanies this visual and aural tumult. Secure and safe, they experience the vicarious thrill of destruction and despair as the film's fictive characters suffer their mortal peril.

The directorial skill with which Taymor creates this traumatic opening episode confirms her ability to re-envision that most difficult of Shakespeare's scenes, the onstage shipwreck. It also confirms her understanding of the dramatic and narrative importance of this incident within the play as a whole, and her personal engagement with Shakespeare's playtext. In the glossy photographic book and screenplay, published to coincide with the film's release, Taymor goes some way toward explaining her particular fascination with The Tempest and its playwright. "Shakespeare was the ultimate screenwriter," she observes, with The Tempest offering "a great opportunity for a film director [ . . . ] from its wondrous and diverse parts for actors to visual dimensions and challenges that are ripe [End Page 383] to be realized through extraordinary locations and experimental visual effects" (Taymor 13). While acknowledging the filmic potential of the "extraordinary locations" and "experimental visual effects" she employs in her 2010 film adaptation of the play, Taymor admits that The Tempest was the "first Shakespeare that [she] directed in the theater," the venue and date for this 'original' version, a "small stage in New York City in 1986" (Taymor 13). The expressionistic realism of Taymor's 2010 Tempest film, by implication, is offered in stark contrast to this 1980s staging. An impressionistic, theatre-based performance, where "Prospero's 'magic' was exposed through the art of theater lighting," might compare less favorably with a cinematic exploration of...