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The Tempest - Theatre Royal Haymarket (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

TREVOR Nunn’s third production as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays – at least with theatre producers and their like.

I’m talking, of course, about The Tempest and here, in what can only be seen as an astute move, Nunn has chosen for his Prospero one of Britain’s finest dramatic actors – Ralph Fiennes.

However, in casting Fiennes, Nunn has dispensed with the traditional image of Prospero as an old man with long white hair and matching beard which, in some quarters, might well meet with frowns of disapproval. But Prospero is still a relatively young man and the father (not the grandfather) of a 15-year-old daughter, so why should he be portrayed as anything else? And certainly not as we imagine a magician should look – though maybe I’ve missed the point and the perceived image of Prospero is, in fact, the prototype.

But who exactly is this man Prospero who has learned the art of magic and is bringing up his daughter single-handed on an enchanted isle? He’s actually the Duke of Milan, who 12 years before the story begins, was usurped by his brother Antonio (with the aid of Alonso, King of Naples) and cast adrift in a boat, not even fit for rats, with his three year old daughter Miranda.

Washed up on a remote island, Prospero plots to restore Miranda to her rightful place by using illusion and skilful manipulation and to this end, he conjures up a fearful tempest so that the ship carrying Antonio, as well as Alonso and his son Ferdinand, is wrecked and its passengers cast onto the shores of the island, where they not only have Caliban, the half beast half man, to contend with but also Ariel, a spirit of the air…

Unlike some recent productions of Shakespeare plays, Nunn has decided against giving The Tempest a contemporary setting, mainly because it just wouldn’t work in our technological age. Look what happened to Lost! Fittingly therefore, it’s played throughout in Shakespeare’s original script – not always easy to understand and certainly, I would imagine, a challenge for the cast.

Yet it’s a challenge they certainly rise to, Fiennes in particular, whose presence truly lights up the stage. His Prospero is determined but never totally ruthless, tempered as it is with forgiveness. And his love for his daughter is never in doubt, his pain in losing her to another man (albeit the man she loves), almost palpable.

Nicholas Lyndhurst , who as Trinculo takes second billing, does what Lyndhurst does so well – plays the fool (Trinculo is, after all, the King’s jester), his on-stage partnership with Clive Wood’s Stephano lightening the mood and providing welcome comic relief.

Elisabeth Hopper’s Miranda, all wide-eyed innocence and a delight as a young woman in the flush of first love, is perfectly matched by Michael Benz as her young lover Ferdinand. Tom Byam Shaw, suitably attired in pale body stocking of indeterminate hue, captures the capriciousness and ethereal quality of Ariel, although Giles Terera as Caliban never quite comes across as the monster he’s supposed to be – perhaps because I last saw him treading the boards as Sammy Davis Junior.

With minimal scenery – mainly the ruins of a theatre, possible left-overs from Waiting for Godot – the production relies heavily on lighting, special effects (the tempest is particularly well managed) and the odd spectacle. However, the onus for success lies very much in the hands of the cast who, as I’ve already indicated, acquit themselves well.

This production of The Tempest – not the first and certainly not the last – has much to commend it although at 2 hours and 55 minutes it is long and there were times when I willed the sand in Prospero’s hour glass to flow rather than simply trickle. However, on September 7, 2011, it was well received by the audience and that I think is what really counts.

The Tempest continues at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until October 29, 2011.

View photos from the production