The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, and one of the hardest to carry off plausibly. It is an airy tissue of language and fancy: it requires actors capable of capturing the arabesques of its verse and also of supporting the credulity that the story itself demands. The verse is similarly poised between comedy and tragedy, and infused everywhere with a kind of melancholy: it requires an exceptional degree of balance between the extravagant and the restrained that almost no other play in the corpus demands. One can overdo one or another element of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and still have a serviceable old warhorse capable of solid amusement if not delight; one can emphasize this or that aspect of Hamlet or Othello to the detriment of another, and still have plenty of insightful material to digest.
The price of failure in The Tempest is more extreme. If the whole does not cohere and sing, it collapses. If one cannot grasp the lyricism, the humor, and the serious reflection on art all at the same time, the production becomes dull and almost intolerable. When the play works, however, it is unparallelled, and deserves study and attention. Shakespeare has moreover put into the mouths of his most extravagantly strange characters — especially the wicked Caliban and the sprite Ariel — some of his most colorful and subtle language, and when those parts are played well, the effect is brilliant.
A play quintessentially designed for the stage, it depends as much as any other in the corpus on the dynamic existing between players and audience, and perhaps for that reason it does not easily survive the transition to film. Several of the available versions capture at least part of the play’s wonder and magic; none of them can really convey it all. The BBC Shakespeare Plays production (1980: John Gorrie) is among the most leaden of the whole series. Perhaps the most interesting one is the Canadian Stratford version (1982: Herb Roland). Others have their own virtues and their own defects.