Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books," now at the Rotunda, straddles the thin line between the highbrow and the really highbrow.
It is not, to dispel one rumor, in any way a production of Shakespeare's "Tempest," at least not in any normal usage of that word. It is rather a visualization, a distillation, a conceptualization of the Bard's work. As the 1956 sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet" opened the play for access by the masses, "Prospero's Books" closes access down to exclude the masses: It's a forbidden planet for no one but the most recondite of tastes. It's visually and technically mind-blowing -- for about 10 seconds. Then it becomes an overdose of sleeping pills. Its true inspiration must be "Hamlet": to sleep, perchance to dream, forsooth to snore, of natural course to toss, turn, tumble, where, besmirched with slumber's heavy crust of dew and becalmed 'pon a waveless sea, we sink toward that undiscovered country of total zonk-out. Or something like that.
Anyway . . . working with the brilliant but possibly quite batty British genius Sir John Gielgud, Greenaway has fashioned a document like no other. (Thank God.) The story of the Duke of Milan exiled to an island in the Mediterranean where he becomes a magician and eventually effects his revenge and in return becomes an examination of the 24 books that he took with him into exile. We are talking an illustrated card catalog: Each book is introduced numerically, described lovingly, displayed exhaustively, and then spins out to make contact, however tentative, with the materials of the play.
Thus, the play is not performed but rather reduced: It becomes a series of dioramas, the Boy Scout version of high drama, in which elaborately costumed (or elaborately uncostumed: nudity is rampant) ladies and gentleman stand around looking like living art, while Gielgud, offscreen or on, reads their lines. Thus the play never "lives." It hides as if behind a veil, with whispers and vapors of its existence now and then allowed to drift on screen. There's no drama because there's no conflict.
The fundamental movement in the movie is the parade: long trains of people are always moving slower than the choo-choo that hauled Lincoln to Springfield toward some ill-defined goal at the end of the corridor, while naked boys and girls prance and pirouette, throwing rose petals and strumming the lyre to celebrate the very slow progress. Toto, I have a feeling this isn't Kansas.
This is not to say the imagery isn't arresting; it's incredible. Moreover, using the very cleverest of TV technology, Greenaway is able to knit boxes of images together in stunning fashion. Yet it's all so inert and technical, so bloodless that it's always a cryptogram.
Starring Sir John Gielgud.
Directed by Peter Greenaway.
Released by Miramax.