Review: The Tempest

By John Nathan, September 8, 2011
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Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1

Ralph Fiennes and Elisabeth Hopper as Prospero and Miranda

Ralph Fiennes and Elisabeth Hopper as Prospero and Miranda

It comes as a surprise to learn that this is the first time Trevor Nunn, a former artistic director of both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, has directed The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's most magical plays.

It comes as a shock to find that this production, with a surly Ralph Fiennes as Prospero and a genuinely funny Nicholas Lyndhurst as the jester Trinculo, feels like it has been sitting at the bottom of Nunn's to-do draw ever since he left the RSC in 1986.

Even 25 years ago the idea of Shakespeare's sprite and spirits swinging on trapezes might have felt a tad dog-eared. Here they also prance around the stage in leotards and face paint as if they have just finished an NVQ in movement. There is not the slightest sense of threat or depth in Tom Byam Shaw's Ariel. And there are moments when you could be forgiven for thinking this is not the latest offering in Nunn's Theatre Royal season, which started with a thrilling revival of Rattigan's Flare Path, but the kind of touring warhorse that West End theatres sometimes bring in as fillers for August.

It appears that it is not just the ideas in Nunn's production that have the feeling of being dusted off. Stephen Brimson Lewis's set - a dilapidated proscenium arch - looks remarkably like the one used in the Theatre Royal 2009 production of Waiting for Godot. In fact, it is the one used in that production. I could let that slide, budget and times being what they are. But whereas the set of a decaying theatre made perfect sense in a Godot rooted in music hall, here it is just there.

The ideas have the feeling of being dusted off

All of which would matter a good deal less if Fiennes had found a way to transmit a latent tenderness beneath his Prospero's austere mantle. The carapace only briefly cracks when Elisabeth Hopper's affecting Miranda receives her first kiss from Michael Benz's ardent Ferdinand. Then we're back to Fiennes's stern default setting.

Lyndhurst meanwhile is a sheer delight. Supported by the always terrific Clive Wood as the drunk servant Stephano, his Trinculo has that funny and sad yin and yang that comics and jesters are made of. Giles Terera's snarling but vulnerable Caliban also deserves a mention. In a play saturated with music, only Terera's sweet voice is true. But there is the uneasy sense here that by casting a black actor as the "slave" Caliban, Nunn is also looking for a political relevance, which, rather like trapeze artists, is a pretty old notion unless a new inventive way is found to portray it. It isn't.

And in a three-hour play whose story unfolds in real time, and which has the power to expand the mind with its tale of forgiveness, we get instead a cul de sac with the production's central motif of an hour-glass. Twice Fiennes's Prospero places one at front, centre stage. But just before the sands of time - an idea almost as hackneyed as the phrase - finally run out, the thing is unceremoniously removed, with no resolution to the idea, no payback for watching the grains slip away. Like much else in the production, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Tel: 0845 481 1870

    Last updated: 11:15am, September 8 2011