It’s 8 p.m. on Thursday, the opening night of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) National Conference, and downtown Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is packed with stage professionals celebrating TCG’s 50th anniversary. But the conference’s closing keynote speaker—the big draw, The Get—director Julie Taymor is several blocks away in a sparsely filled, off-the-beaten-path movie theater waiting to introduce a TCG-hosted screening of her film adaptation of The Tempest, in which Prospero becomes Prospera played by Helen Mirren.
Just two days ago, it seemed as though everyone in the world wanted to talk to Taymor as she walked the red carpet at the long-deferred opening of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, publicly kissing and not quite making up with Bono, who approved the decision to fire her from the troubled production (there are still lawsuits over royalties to be settled). Taymor has promised to answer any and all questions from the audience tonight, and Helen Mirren, after a three-hour flight delay, is being rushed to the theater for the post-screening Q & A.
So why is no one here?
The theater is small, and just more than half of its 250 seats are filled. There are no detectable members of the press, only clusters of theater conference attendees and what appears to be a high school group. Could it be that the Taymor Spider-Man story is one of those mediastorms the press adores but no one else finds interesting?
Even TCG seems to be saving its Taymor coddling for Saturday’s keynote address. The proceedings begin without ceremony. A woman in a coral blouse and black suit-jacket steps to the front and introduces Taymor in just a sentence or two. Turns out she’s not a conference official but The Tempest’s producer, Lynne Hendee. Taymor then takes the mike. She is slender, bony. Up close her features are sharper and even more delicate than in photos, her nose a blade, her neck long and sinewy. Her pale, incredibly smooth skin has the waxen texture of the well-kept. Her black, fine-knit Dolce & Gabbana sweater buttons down the back as well as the front. Red snakeskin sandals are the only color against sleek black pants. Her hammered gold spiral earrings look to be a Ted Muehling design. The look is refined, severe.
With the audience, though, she is casual and conversational, joking that she and Hendee are excited to be showing the film to this particular crowd: “You’re possibly the only audience who knows that The Tempest was a play first.” It’s a bouquet at the audience, and there is a ripple of flattered laughter. If she’s surprised at the modest attendance, she doesn’t show it.
She talks briefly, personably, about her history with The Tempest. She directed it onstage, she says, “two-and-a-half times.” The first was for her professional directorial debut, in 1986, for the Classical Stage Company, a project she undertook at the behest of Jeffrey Horowitz (longtime Founding Artistic Director of Theatre for a New Audience), who will be speaking with her at the directors’ panel on Saturday.
Then the movie rolls. Opened in the U.S. in December (it was the closing film of the 2010 Venice Film Festival), Taymor’s Tempest met with mostly poor reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 28%. But as Taymor rightly surmised, this roomful of theater geeks is as appreciative and knowledgeable an audience as she’ll find anywhere. The closing credits, 110 minutes later, are met by enthusiastic applause.
Taymor returns to the front of the room, with Hendee and Kyle Cooper, the film’s visual effects supervisor. Mirren is not yet in the building, but the audience has plenty of questions for Taymor—not one of them controversial. Taymor is right to trust the TCG audience. It’s a respectful crowd. There’s never even a hint of a Spider-Man question, never a possibility.
In fact, over the next 45-plus minutes, there will be only two mentions of Spider-Man, both by Taymor. The first happens early on, when she mentions that the role of The Tempest’s Prince Ferdinand was played by Reeve Carney, the vocally gifted pretty boy now better known as the lead in Spider-Man. The second reference is more oblique. Speaking to The Tempest’s reviews, Taymor comments in passing that the film opened around a time she was “getting a lot of other bad reviews anyway,” an obvious reference to the months-long trickle-turned-torrent of rumors, reports and preview reviews that precipitated her abrupt firing.
Taymor seems to take a sanguine view on the reviews, at least with regard to The Tempest. “You don’t make a Shakespeare film to make money,” she says. “It got mixed reviews, but we are doing this for the long term, for the canon.” To this end, she hopes the forthcoming Blu-ray will be used as a tool in school classrooms, the first of several mentions of the Blu-ray release, which will have many extra features. She also can’t resist a small jab at film reviewers. “People don’t know how to review a Shakespeare film well,” she opines with a certain touch of sniffiness. “They criticize the plot.”
Right around this time Mirren makes a dramatic arrival, shwashing down the side aisle, sweet in a frothy raw-hem linen dress and sheer tangerine cardigan. She tucks Taymor into an exuberant hug and plops into a tall director’s chair, giving us a good view of her fringed moccasins.
She’s a good sport, to be sure, and jumps right into the discussion, agreeing with Taymor that The Tempest is a particularly difficult adaptation: “I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare,” she says with a dramatic flair, “and this is the most dense of language, the most convoluted.” As she talks, she plays with her accent, swiveling from plummy to cockney.
With Mirren’s arrival come questions about the translation of the main role from male to female—Prospero to Prospera. Right off, Taymor avers that the idea was “not a feminist thing—I just wanted to work with Helen.” But this is followed by a concession from Taymor: “There are very few good roles for women Helen’s age.” Addendum: “in Shakespeare.”
Both Taymor and Mirren agree that changing Prospero’s back story yielded a more emotionally logical trajectory to Prospera’s story. After all, Taymor says, if Prospero was ignoring his subjects in Milan, ought he not have been deposed? What’s more, a female Prospera/o gives the text “richnesses and subtext,” for instance in the relationship between Prospera and her daughter Miranda, and in Prospera’s attitude toward young Prince Ferdinand, which is less one of being challenged and more of “being aware how much a man can hurt a woman.”
Mirren adds that it makes sense for Prospera to have been distrusted for her alchemy and education, given the history of witches, and the sentiment, “still in the world, this incredible resistance to women having learning and power.” After all, she continues, Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan world, and was intimately familiar with “women with huge political power.”
The questions go on for nearly an hour, winding down only when the audience does. But for all her ease and openness, there’s a tensile core to the petite and fine-featured Taymor that obviates any violation of the protective force field that surrounds her. Mirren, however, is quickly swamped by the school group, bearing her down the hall to the lobby in their current, thronging on either side for a group photo, their dark skin brilliantly stark beside her platinum hair and creamy dress.
In the lobby, at close quarters, Taymor is just as protected by the bubble as from afar. Conferring with a close knot of insiders, she is heard to mention “journalists waiting for some big kind of reveal on Saturday.”