There's a moment in Julie Taymor's gender-bent film of The Tempest when Helen Mirren seems to come down hard on actors. Briskly dismissing the masque summoned for the entertainment of the betrothed Ferdinand and her virginal daughter Miranda, "Prospera," the enchantress, gently but firmly disenchants. "Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air …" It's a famous speech, often read as a valediction in Shakespeare's last play; the Bard, as it were, flicking the house lights on and off to boot out the late-night groundlings.
Mirren delivers the lines in a tone of benevolent clarity, as if breaking it to her innocent daughter that Santa isn't actually up there with the elves. In the London hotel drawing room where we're talking, her mother's mink collar wound round her neck, a slash of scarlet lipstick on her mouth, Mirren is warming up the bone-slicing cold with the sparks of her merry, articulate intelligence. I tell her, in case she hadn't done it consciously, that she lingeringly enunciates actors with a curl of the lip. She breaks into one of her salty, estuary-girl laughs and says, "Oh, really? I didn't mean to insult actors. I love actors and the whole process of acting."
You believe her because she's a performer who reflects nonstop about what she's doing, onstage, film, or television, yet without ever burdening her delivery with over-considered attitude. When I saw Gielgud do Prospero at the Old Vic in the 1970s, the great man wandered about the stage in a state of vague irritability, vocalizing the "cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces," as an inward, somber meditation on the illusion-chamber of the theater itself. But Mirren's delivery is blade-sharp steel to Gielgud's tarnished silver. The she-wizard is undeluded about her conjuring because in the last resort she knows it is all nonsense, even though, as Mirren concedes, "nonsense is seductive." The nonsense-masters she had in mind, she says, are the wizards of Wall Street and their like who kid themselves that they can make castles in the air. "The solemn temples," she says, are "Goldman Sachs; the City. … They seem so solid, don't they?" But, in fact, they're just an "insubstantial pageant" that can be "melted into air, into thin air."
In the gender flip (which works so perfectly you don't give it a moment's thought after Mirren's first appearance mantled in raven-dark scales and plumes) this resolutely unbewitched tone seems right for a motherly admonition to her dewy-eyed teenage daughter. It's all very nice, the airy-fairy stuff, Prospera seems to be saying, but, look kid, we'll be out of here before you know it and if you know what's good for you you'll wise up in short order. So when Miranda, confronted with a throng of tights and capes, gasps "O brave new world,/ That has such people in't!" Prospera's sidelong comment—" 'Tis new to thee"—has the force of a different knowledge: the worldly kind.
Which isn't to say this is a prosaic film version of The Tempest, and that Mirren's version of the spell-conjurer is flatly matter-of-fact; womanly practicality, rather than magic monomania. It's just that she inhabits a mindset in keeping with Jacobean culture, finely balanced between visionary apparition and clear-eyed pragmatism. It's easy, amid the spells and spirits, to forget that this is a drama about power of various kinds—the kind of power that needs the play of illusion as well as the impact of blunt force to make itself felt. Mirren does both, but her blond witch of revenge certainly relishes the "rough magic."
I ask her, since she is seriously well-read, whether she was thinking of Renaissance women who gave no quarter—such as Catherine de Medici? "No, Simon," she says, smiling, "you would be thinking of that. I just thought of the human situation—who had betrayed you, had tried to murder you? Of someone who had lived with bitterness and anger and a desire for revenge." She mentions as an inspiration Euripides' Medea, consumed with murderous rage channeled into bloody havoc. But her motherly Prospera is a mix of tough and tender, pretty much like the actress. "Now, [the end of the play with the plotters caught in the island trap] when you could exact the most horrible revenge …," she says, letting the sentence run out thoughtfully. It's not just the fact of the torturing cramps and stings the sorcerer visits on the captive Caliban, she says, it's the enjoyment of listing them—"side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up"—that's so fierce.
It's this taste for physical and mental cruelty that the actress who played the Duchess of Malfi and guns down bad guys in Red recognizes as an authentic side of the Bard as much as his complicated interior ruminations: "Shakespeare opens fissures you don't want to look into." Some of those openings, she says, are frankly sexual. Prospera inflicts torments on Caliban because of his attempt to rape the child/girl Miranda. "All he wants to do is f*** her, really f*** her." The mother pays him back the way a threatened mother would.
Prospera was Mirren's idea. Watching Derek Jacobi's Prospero in 2002, it struck her that "a woman could do this and it wouldn't change a word" of meaning. She then went home and read through the text to make sure it wouldn't just be some sort of reflex feminist gesture. And she saw what might be gained: a different kind of protectiveness bestowed by a mother on her daughter; a different reason to make Ferdinand's road to nuptial bliss a thorny trial. "She knows what 16-year-old girls are like, swoony and dreamy, because she's been one. She needs to make sure Miranda isn't cheaply won." All thy vexations/ Were but my trials of thy love, indeed.