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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal, Haymarket


  Ralph Fiennes and Elisabeth Hopper/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Having played the wizard Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies, it seems logical for Ralph Fiennes to raise the magic stakes – and the storm – as Prospero in The Tempest.

Prospero’s work in Shakespeare’s last play is one of revelation, settling old scores, reconciliation, abjuration and farewell. There’s always a danger that he might come across like a retiring civil servant, or a penitent, eccentric old schoolteacher, and he very often does.

Fiennes emphatically doesn’t. He works hard – from the moment we see him emerging from a stage box in the Haymarket, which serves as his cell, his physical hinterland – at communicating the spiritual turmoil he’s going through, muttering like a middle-aged magus and conjuring the tempest with a cool and calculating deliberation.

Trevor Nunn has never directed this play before and doesn’t, at this late stage, feel he has anything special to “say” about it. His production is simple and charming, with plenty of low-tech effects (Prospero’s art is “rough magic,” after all), and Fiennes conducts his campaign with an almost childish pleasure in the havoc and spectacle he wreaks.

He doesn’t go down the Gielgud route of lyrical expiation, or the John Wood one of electrified mysteriousness. He simply guides his teenage daughter, delightfully played by newcomer Elisabeth Hopper, towards the story of his destiny and the meaning of hers, through the agency of his adversary’s son, the handsome prince Ferdinand (Michael Benz).

At the same time, Ferdinand’s own father, Alonso, the king of Naples, is played by James Simmons as a grieving, regretful complement to Prospero, and the intermediate upheavals and masques are almost a rite of reconciliatory passage between them. Even Giles Terera’s Caliban is no suppurating, vindictive carbuncle, but a lithe and amiable upstart who needs a watchful pat on the head.

Nunn seems to be in a mood to unlock another level of sweet humanity in the play, and some reviewers have taken this as a sign of missing the harshness and vindictiveness traditionally associated with it. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but it’s very interesting to see Nunn going his own way, so to speak, as a “Tempest virgin.”

And despite a couple of dodgy wigs (I’d ban all wigs, end of story), it all looks very beautiful in Stephen Brimson Lewis' design of Elizabethan costumes for the usurping court whom Prospero’s lured in the storm. The island, too, is “theatrically” conceived within the crumbling plaster proscenium Brimson Lewis designed for last year’s Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.

Prospero’s Ariel appears in triplicate on trapeze, led by a boyish Tom Byam Shaw with Steven Butler and Charlie Hamblett as his acrobatic “divided selves,” all in rather-too-obvious blond coiffure, and the masque of Iris and Ceres is done as a Cirque du Soleil turn, Ceres actually sliding down a silken rainbow. Shaun Davey provides the music, which is evocative, melodic and even surprisingly “civilised” in the revolutionary rant of Caliban and his new “masters,” Stephano and Trinculo.

These last two are played by RSC veteran Clive Owen and television star Nicholas Lyndhurst, whose crestfallen face and perfect timing are too rarely seen on the stage. Lyndhurst makes of the forlorn jester not only a perfect foil to Owen, but a befuddled witness to the world of masques and feasts that have so spectacularly passed him by.

The Tempest, one of the shortest plays, can sometimes be played in 90 minutes. Nunn’s version dawdles past three hours, but this does allow the almost real-time passage of the play its full value. And with Fiennes speaking the lines so beautifully, and reaffirming his place as one of our most magnetic stage actors, there’s not really too much room left for complaint.    


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