Having got used to the technical innovations of digital film and, more recently, 3D effects, it was a salutary experience to attend a film club showing of Derek Jarman’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest shot in 16mm on a low budget in 1979. The pictured flickered at times and in one section flecks appeared to be spattered down the screen. The soundtrack volume was slightly uneven and at one point was overlaid with a clicking noise. It was a bit like listening to an old 78rpm record. But in spite of all this, the magical atmosphere was deeper than is often the case with slick digital special effects.
The film is set in a crumbling mansion rather than on an island. Heathcote Williams appears rather young as Prospero, though his dishevelled and rather seedy look makes him rather more like a castaway than the usual dignified Duke of Milan. Toyah Willcox as a wilful teenage Miranda giggles at Caliban’s sexual gestures and looks as if she can’t wait to get hold of Ferdinand. Jarman adopted a minimalist approach to the text: whole speeches are cut down to a couple of lines and many of the play’s rhetorical flourishes reduced to low-key exchanges or soliloquies delivered as voice-overs to e.g. Prospero turning over the pages of a book displaying magical symbols or Miranda riding provocatively on a rocking-horse. Jack Birkett as Caliban breaks raw eggs into his mouth and is graphically shown being suckled by a grotesque Sycorax. Karl Johnson’s Ariel is grudging and petulant and seems to sneak away while Prospero is sleeping at the end rather than being amicably released.
But Jarman’s outrageous pièce de résistance is the camp adaptation of the masque scene as a troupe of sailor boys dancing a hornpipe culminating in a punning, bluesy rendition of ‘Stormy Weather’ (see clip) by Elisabeth Welch, presumably as Juno and Ceres in one (though, in the cast list, simply described as ’a goddess’).
With such an idiosyncratic approach to the play it may not have been wholly inappropriate to watch it in its grainy analogue version in which the colours seemed almost painted on and the actors appeared, in some ways, to be playing out their allotted parts in a masque that constitutes the whole film, moving around the set like “spirits … [in an] … insubstantial pageant”. We are, indeed, “such stuff as dreams are made on”. If nothing else, the film certainly underlines that assertion.
Toyah Willcox as Miranda