Director Julie Taymor (Broadway’s “The Lion King”) has a gorgeous visual imagination and a love of spectacle, both lavishly on display in the latest version Shakespeare’s final play, the story of a sorcerer’s revenge. But she uses it to enhance, not distract from the real magic of dazzling language spoken by magnificent actors.
The play’s Duke-turned wizard Prospero now becomes Prospera (Dame Helen Mirren), the wife of the Duke who was so distracted by her study of magic that her position was usurped by her husband’s brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper). She escaped with her daughter Miranda, with the help of the king’s adviser, Gonzalo (Tom Conti). For twelve years, they have been living on an island, cared for by a sprite named Ariel (Ben Wishaw) and the son of a witch named Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). Miranda barely knows that any other world exists.
Returning home by ship after a wedding, Antonio, Gonzalo, the King (David Straithairn), and their courtiers encounter a storm called up by Prospera, and they are shipwrecked and separated, each fearing all the others have died. Promising Ariel and Caliban their freedom if they help her, Prospera directs — and misdirects — the bewildered survivors. She puts Miranda in the path of the king’s son, Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), and they fall instantly in love. Prospera is delighted, but pretends to be angry and orders him to hard labor: “this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.”
Meanwhile, the king and Gonzalo are searching for Ferdinand, with Antonio and the king’s brother, Sebastian (Alan Cumming), who realize that if they can kill the other two, Sebastian will be king. Prospera stops them with magic.
And then there is Trinculo (Russell Brand), the jester and Stephano (Alfred Molina), the drunken butler. They find Caliban, who is happy to switch his allegiance to them, especially when they give him his first taste of liquor.
Mirren is fiery and magesterial, holding her magic staff to the sky and commanding Ariel and Caliban. But she shows us Prospera’s devotion to Miranda and recognition that she contributed to her fate by allowing herself to be too caught up in magic to notice that Antonio was betraying her. She understands that the price for this greatest display of her art and her gifts so that she can return home will be to give it all up forever. The young lovers are a little bland, but the rest of the cast is exceptional — and surprisingly organic, considering that it includes classically-trained British stage actors like Mirren, Cumming, and Molina with American performers Cooper and Straithairn, three-continent Honsou and all-around wild child Brand. The visual touches perfectly evoke the themes of order and chaos, with Escher-esque steps vertiginously reaching bannister-less up the walls, found object-based props, and Prospera’s final costume, a fabulous mixture of natural material and tight, civilizing straps and stays.