The Tempest, supposedly Shakespeare’s final play, is considered by some to be an elegiac farewell to the theatre, and in this new production at the Haymarket, Trevor Nunn brings this to the forefront. The play is notably one slow, drawn-out goodbye to the island, magic and the stage under his direction. Crowds drawn in by the big-name stars from two of Britain’s most successful series, Harry Potter or Only Fools and Horses, may find this trying, and the near three hour interpretation does lack vivacity, but what this version misses in spark it makes up for in emotion.
The well-known plot revolves around Prospero, a sorcerer, using his powers to shipwreck his treacherous brother Antonio on the island. Ferdinand, a crew-member’s son, is found by Prospero and his daughter Miranda, and he and she fall in love. Caliban, a semi-human slave of Prospero, vows revenge on his master with the aid of two jesters, ultimately to no avail. And Antonio’s crew tries to find a way around the island despite mutinous crew-members and tricks from Ariel, Prospero’s servant sprite. Nunn balances this with mixed success, with some scenes fantastical, others outstaying their welcome.
The play rests on the character of Prospero, and Ralph Fiennes does not disappoint. Following on from a string of villainous roles in film, Fiennes plays this gently, convincing us that he is simultaneously a worthy duke of Milan, a powerful sorcerer and a loving father to Miranda, ensuring we feel nothing but empathy for him throughout. Without him, some of the longer sequences may have noticeably dragged, but every moment with him on stage is engrossing; an early speech in which he tells his story is riveting thanks almost wholly to his impassioned delivery and when he discards his books it feels like an old friend saying goodbye.
Elisabeth Hopper brings warmth to Miranda, with youthful charm and an honest sense of wonder; never have the words “Oh brave new world!” sounded more sincere, and both she and Fiennes and she and Michael Benz (Ferdinand) have a fantastic rapport. Ariel is played by Tom Byam Shaw as both an excitable child and an age-old sprite, often charming, sometimes irritating, with what should be short flights of fancy over-extended. Nicholas Lyndhurst and Clive Wood, as Trinculo and Stephano, are after Fiennes the stand-outs, bringing a wit to the roles of Shakespearean clowns that endear them to the audience despite their actions. And the spectacle of the tempest or Ariel’s magic is enough to perk up the production during its occasional lulls.
However, there are failings with the production, despite the best efforts of a superb cast and down to Nunn, who doesn’t seem to have complete faith in the play. For example, the over-reliance on spectacle wears thin. Whilst the initial tempest is punchy and involving, the near-5-minute wedding of Juno, the third or fourth sequence of its kind in the play, is practically a bad musical number, adding nothing and detracting from the genuinely engrossing human drama. Also, despite Nunn’s religiously thorough reading of the text (something that frequently slows down the play), he misses the darkness implicit and makes it ultimately too sympathetic. Caliban, who can be read as either devilish villain or the true victim of the piece, is sidelined as a somewhat two-dimensional character; when Prospero says “on whose nature nurture cannot stick” Nunn expects us simply to accept that and move on. And with Prospero both gentle yet powerful, there’s no real tension – we know early on he will be safe and forgive all involved, something that makes the first half slightly pedestrian and the ending reunion rather tame instead of a deserving denouement.
However, it is above all a moving evening at the theatre. Whilst if Nunn had been less self-indulgent it would have been a much more powerful show, it remains an engaging production, with much of this due to Fiennes and Hopper. When Fiennes takes to the stage for what may be the final words of the bard, the time we have spent in his company is repaid in spades by his heartfelt delivery, and the final mood of the piece is one of warmth, connection and sincerity.