❉ Rich and strange (with a hip full of loose change) – such stuff that hallicinatory dreams are made on.
Way back in the WABAC Machine, Sherman, what seest thou in the dim dark backward and abysm of time? We see, in the distant dreaming dawn of 1611, aged playwright William Shakespeare – the wilting swan of Avon – put quill to parchment to pen one of his last dramas before his final curtain call. His undimmed genius aflame with fresh sources of sorcery – including ‘Of the Cannibals’ from Michel de Montaigne’s famed Essays, German dramatist Jakob Ayrer’s pay of magicians with pulchritudinous daughters and familiar spirits Die Schone Sidea, and contemporaneous true to life tales of maritime disasters and island survival such as Sylvester Jourdan’s A Discovery of the Barmudas and William Strachey’s A True Reportery of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight – old Billy-Shakes would craft a piece of poesy and prose fretted with Faerie fire and rough magic; a celestial commedia dell’arte of an overthrown thaumaturge, chthonic Caliban and sea-rent shipwrecks awash with seamen.
“What’s past is prologue”
In 1979, enfant terrible firebrand of Queer Cinema Derek Jarman would thread fey-flecked film through a spellbound Steenbeck and create his third full-length feature film, following 1976’s Latin language testament of homoerotic martyrdom Sebastiane and 1978’s state of the nation punk paean Jubilee. Drawn to the themes of tolerance and forgiveness – and the Montaignian philosophy of “Que sais-je?” (“Who am i to say?” – because we can be certain of so little in life then one must be tolerant of the opinions of others) shared by Shakespeare – in the text, Jarman elected to adapt The Tempest for the screen in his own signature style.
“Now i will believe that there are unicorns…”
Circa 1995, or thereabouts, whilst studying the text of the play in an English class in a dismal comprehensive school in the uncharted rain-streaked backwaters of North-East England, a young and miserable boy – ’tis i myselfe, dear reader, your humble author and guide through this journey – would, like a young Steven Morrissey of Stretford discovering Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delaney (do you remember your first time?) – have an awakening. Having decided that a visual aid to complement the dry dustiness of the text itself was probably a good idea, and no local theatrical production currently occurring locally, our beloved teacher decided upon the medium of film to guide us through. Not really having access to earlier cinematic takes upon the material such as Percy Stow’s 1908 silent one-reeler, or even William Wellman’s 1948 Western transliteration Yellow Sky, he picked two adaptation sfor us to watch in class over the week: the first was Fred McLeod Wilcox’ 1956 interplanetary transplantation, the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (in which of course Anne Francis starred alongside Robbie the Robot of later Lost in Space stardom) and the second was the jarring experience of the Jarman version. Eerie, rich, strange and weird (as wyrd as wyrd sisters, and strangers upon a heath), i watched the celluloid dream unfold before me with a stirring inside my soul, and the hairs on the back of my neck pricking like the electric porpentine.
“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”
Thought is free, but strange it is the things that remain crammed in one’s cranium for decades – for upon watching the for the first time in almost 23 years there are images and sequences that seem never to have left my mind: the blue-tinted exterriors of the isle that is full of noises (perhaps influenced by the accidental [through using film stock intended for nighttime filming during the day in a brightly lit apartment] colourised prints of Andy Warhol’s 1969 Blue Movie, and also an eerie prefiguring of Jarman’s own untimely ultimate opus, 1993’s Blue, released just four months before the auteur’s too early demise), the grainy film stock and wind-blown tumbledown Tudor architecture, Karl Johnson’s airy Ariel – white-boiler suited, white-gloved, white and wan – snapping his jaw open and shut whilst using mandibular manipulation to click open and shut the jaws of the skull of… a rat? A monkey? The rare Sumaran monkey-rat?
“Full fathom five, thy father lies…”
The film begins, as the feeling begins, as a dream – with the wild wizard Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan (played by poet and artist Heathcote Williams as a Shockheaded Struwwelpeter of dangerous whim and caprice, rather than the sage sorceror given by Michael Hordern in the 1980 BBC adaptation, or John Gielgud in Peter Greenaway’s 1991 quicksilver Prospero’s Books) recumbent and restful and exhaling his sleeping breath through a wisp of muslin, the sound of his breathing resounding repeatedly throughout the movie, like a living part of the soundtrack; emphasising always that all around is unreal. The film itself, like the enchanted isle it is set upon, feels haunted: by spirits, by yearning and longing as though spectral sadness summons souls for succour. Living in his garrison fortress of exiled solitude (interiors shot at the former Cistercian cloister Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire southwest of Coventry [the single most bleak place in the universe, or so i was once told], cyan-stained exteriors filmed at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland – where my grandmother once slipped and rolled down the embankment outside the citadel, taking my five year old self with her, fans of facts be informed!) alongside him are his Daughter Miranda – played by pop popstrel and punkette Toyah Willcox with a wry and beguiling grin ‘neath her beaded dreadlcoks – and his servants the fairy (interpret that how thou wilt) spirit Ariel (the aforementioned Karl Johnson) and the daemonic and foul Caliban (bald and blind performer Jack Birkett, aka The Incredible Orlando). The crumbling Gothic edifice of the wizard’s house – how redolent a phrase of the witch’s house of so many Grimm fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel – is marked throughout with chalk-scrawled signs and sigils of magical power, and an eerie and otherworldy quality permeates the structure and its inhabitants like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.
“Good wombs have borne bad sons…”
Jarman apparently looked to Hammer’s Gothic horror movies for stylistic inspration on this film, but it seems more like the muse of the late Andy Milligan was wafting through the aether upon that particular night whence inspiratin struck – the film grain, the location of a largge old house and most of the filming done within’t, the faded glamour of aged and rotting crinolines and a genteel past gone to seed. Our exiled magus, through his darkest dreaming, causes a passing ship which haapens to be carrying his treacherous usurping brother Antonio – as well as the King of Naples himself and his entourage – to split upon the foaming brine (the blue-tinted footage of the shipwreck strangely reminiscent of the 1925 silent movie The Storm Breaker [probably best known from the segments edited into the voyage from Varna to Whitby in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula]). Lost on the floating and shiftless oceans, Prospero’s (and Ariel’s) singing eyes and fingers draw them unto the isle, guided by voices.
“At this hour lie at my mercy all my enemies.”
Filled with a combination of openly gay (Birkett, Johnson, Christopher Biggins as drunken ship’s cook Stephano, the late Richard Warwick, ‘confirmed lifelong bachelor’ Peter Bull) or queer-coded (such as Willcox, perhaps ironically miscast by Jarman as a paragon of virtue and beauty, but who is strikingly attractive in several sequences, such as that in which she moves through the haunted halls of the house holding a flickering candle early in the film, the angles and contours of her face shadowed like a Caravaggian icon) performers, perhaps the apotheosis of the film’s unrestrained id comes with the end gathering of all of the protagonists in the spirit masque, wherein the iconic Elisabeth Welch appears as ‘A Goddess’ amidst a plethora of hornpiping sailors to sing ‘Stormy Weather’.
“Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather / Since my man and me ain’t together – keeps raining all the time…”
And the glorious golden gala slips away, the revels now ended, and Ariel remains alone not in a gilt-bedecked ballroom but a dark and dirty cobwebbed room to sit upon the dusty throne in his empire of ashes. For the fantasy is often better than the relity, don’t you find?
“Be not afeared – the isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes, a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears. Sometimes voices, that if i then had waked after a long sleep, will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming, the clouds methinght would open and show riches ready to drop upon me that, when i waked, i cried to dream again.”
Only in dreams. In beautiful dreams.
Somewhere. Over the rainbow.
❉ Derek Jarman’s ‘The Tempest’ is released as part of the BFI’s Jarman: Volume One: 1972-1986 Limited Edition Blu-Ray boxset on 26th March.
❉ Glen McCulla has had a lifetime-long interest in film, history and film history – especially the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He sometimes airs his maunderings on his blog at http://psychtronickinematograph.blogspot.co.uk/ and skulks moodily on Twitter at @ColdLazarou