It may seem an obvious choice for a great classical actor to bid farewell to his career by playing Prospero in “The Tempest,” but there has never been anything obvious about William Hutt’s work.
Hutt is 85 years old and has appeared in 39 of Stratford’s 53 seasons, starting with the very first, back in 1953. He is generally regarded as one of the finest actors in Canada.
In recent years, instead of easing into minor character roles, he has continued to challenge himself, successfully tackling major parts he has never played before, such as Vladimir in “Waiting for Godot” and Spooner in “No Man’s Land.”
He announced earlier this year that this season’s Stratford performance as Prospero would be his last on any stage, which immediately put a major spotlight on this production.
Hutt has played the hero of Shakespeare’s final great play on three previous occasions, most recently in 1999.
In fact, this production is essentially a revival of that earlier staging by Richard Monette and all of the strengths and weaknesses it displayed then still remain.
On the plus side, the major virtue is Hutt’s performance. This is not some old trouper valiantly trying to get through a role he’s too feeble for. On the contrary, Hutt explodes with a muscular violence on several occasions that electrifies the theater.
But what’s even more amazing is how effective he can be in tranquility. Hutt has a centered, almost Zen-like quality that allows him simply to stand on the stage and have it speak volumes. His years of experience have given him an awesome technique that allows the merest whisper to reach the last row of the balcony without strain.
There is also a mischievous side to the man and he can still bring the house down in laughter with a well-timed lifting of his celebrated eyebrow.
This is highly welcome, because Monette’s uninspired staging is short on merriment or imagination. Only the young lovers, played with a spunky charm by Adrienne Gould and Jean Michel LeGal, truly command our interest.
The Ariel of Jacob James is sweet, but ultimately ineffectual and the Caliban of Stephen Ouimette mercifully forgoes ranting, but hasn’t found anything significant to put in its place.
The various shipwrecked lords are also a dreary lot and there isn’t much humor in the drunken caperings of Trinculo and Stephano.
There is literally no scenery on the thrust stage, apart from the odd log, and consequently Meredith Caron’s costumes have to work twice as hard to provide visual interest and consequently, seem decidedly overdone.
And after nearly two hours of spartan staging, it’s strange to see Monette and his choreographer, Michael Lichtefeld, decide to stage the act-four masque so excessively that it looks as though it were something that would fail to pass muster as the entertainment on a Caribbean cruise.
Hutt is a wonder to behold and worth the price of admission, but one can’t help but wish that he has been given a more inspired vehicle to take him on his farewell voyage.