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The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket | reviews, news & interviews

The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket

The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Ralph Fiennes returns to the stage in full Bardic flow

Ralph Fiennes keeps brooding, baleful watch in Trevor Nunn's production of `The Tempest'Catherine Ashmore

Memo to William Shakespeare: could we have more, please, in The Tempest of the anxious, angsty Prospero, the mortality-minded magus played in his most riveting theatre performance in years by Ralph Fiennes? As long as Fiennes is prowling the Haymarket stage, staff in hand, the West End's latest exercise in starry Shakespeare bristles with a quietly baleful urgency that erupts occasionally into a roar.

When Fiennes vacates the action, this Tempest tells the altogether different story of a production so busy tending to visual and aural frills that it often seems, strangely, to bypass the play at hand. It's as if the director Trevor Nunn - in the third production of his ongoing Haymarket residency - were content to annotate this putative Shakespearean farewell from the outside in, leaving only Fiennes and one or two others to pierce to the text's troubling, troubled heart.

That approach is fine in the sequences that bookend the play, especially during an opening in which one all but feels Fiennes's Prospero girding himself for what will doubtless be his final "project". Visibly depleted by the effort involved in gathering his conjuring act for one last hurrah, Fiennes suggest a human equivalent to the hourglass that functions as a key prop throughout the show: a man for whom time is running out who during the course of three hours will surrender his daughter, his art, and perhaps very soon his life. The production by extension more or less unfolds in real time, which isn't usually the case with, say, The Winter's Tale.

And yet hang on: isn't Fiennes, not yet 50, a bit youthful to be playing a character who talks of "every third thought" as his grave? Well, I saw Derek Jacobi play the first of his two Prosperos in 1983, aged 45, which in turn was older than Paul Scofield at the time he opened as Lear. The issues of forgiveness and fatigue that course through this particular Romance are no respecter of age, and Fiennes finds within Prospero a humanity, however storm-tossed, that is deeply moving; here is no rancorous man undone by spite but a score-settler who knows that for others, as for himself, the most important of words is the text's closing monosyllable, "free".

I wish I could summon more enthusiasm for the rest of a staging that unfolds on a Stephen Brimson Lewis set suspended cunningly between the worlds of the theatre and of Prospero's island retreat, the duality evident in the ruined proscenium arch that frames the action (and that repeats the same designer's work on Waiting for Godot at this address a season or two ago). The boxes near the stage obscured by fabric - a visual nod, perhaps, towards the much-vaunted revival of Sondheim's Follies that has been mooted for later in Nunn's tenancy - the design pointedly lands us by play's end in the realm very much of performance itself, all artifice stripped away to leave Fiennes's Prospero exposed as an illusionist without his wand: the Wizard exiled for good from Oz.

tempest2But it's hard to know what to make of the faux-celestial lighting that frequently bathes the stage, as often as not signalling the arrival of Tom Byam Shaw's affected yet unaffecting Ariel: a wildly exaggerated turn that doesn't benefit from the addition of two seeming clones (billed in the programme as Ariel's "divided selves") who are on hand to reach the fussier high notes of Shaun Davey's original score. Equally puzzling is the Ferdinand of Michael Benz, a difficult role not helped by so dorky and charmless a take on the first specimen of humankind to arouse the interest of the teenage Miranda, Prospero's daughter. That distaff assignment, happily, is well served by Elisabeth Hopper, who finds real consequence in the breaking of the umbilical cords that the play describes, as borne out in a rending sequence late on in which she and Fiennes lock eyes. Her "brave new world" is one in which dad's absence will inevitably be felt.

Elsewhere, the feyness that all but does Ariel in extends to Nicholas Lyndhurst's hangdog Trinculo (pictured above centre with Giles Terera and Clive Wood to either side), devolving into flat-out camp when it comes to the shipwrecked cadre of villains, and Chris Andrew Mellon's petulant Sebastian, having evidently wandered in by way of Oscar Wilde. On the other hand, Clive Wood (outstanding this past spring in Nunn's season-opener Flare Path) makes of Stephano that genuine rarity, a funny stage drunk, suggesting himself as a Toby Belch in the making with the lank-haired Lyndhurst his inevitable Aguecheek.

'The masque would seem to yoke together Purcell and Priscilla Queen of the Desert: go figure'

 

What's missing, though, is much sense of genuine discovery about a play - one of the few Shakespeares never previously directed by Nunn - that one could imagine speaking to this veteran director in any number of ways. Sure, it's interesting to see Prospero's "poor cell" occupying a book-filled theatre box toward the front left of the stalls even as one recoils from a masque that would seem to yoke together Purcell and Priscilla Queen of the Desert: go figure. Elsewhere, the defining shipwreck, as too often the case with this play, amounts to so much undifferentiated gabble.

Still, attend those passages that reveal Fiennes towards one side of or atop the stage peering down on the very characters whom Prospero will, in time, collectively jettison at considerable cost to himself, and I doubt there are many actors at the moment in London you'd rather watch or hear. Fiennes's crowning villainy of late on screen as the malformed, sneering Voldemort may have broadened this film star's fan base ever further, but The Tempest brings a genuine theatre animal back home, showing us what his greatest movie successes to date haven't: the actor is overflowing with soul.

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