at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, Tuesday 6th September 2011
Trevor Nunn was once one of the most powerful men in British theatre. Looking at his new production of The Tempest, however, it’s difficult to see why. As someone who wasn’t alive during his ‘heyday’ in the 70s, his direction looks to me like something unworthy of accolade. This sparse, traditional dress version of the play is neither good nor bad. It is something worse. It is unbelievably dull.
It begins promisingly enough. A loud storm scene is followed by an engaging dialogue between Prospero (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter Miranda (Elisabeth Hopper). But where the pace should pick up, when we begin to meet the marooned crew members, the play begins to fall apart. We watch nothing but verse spoken pleasingly in static semi-circles. Even Trinculo & Stephano’s encounter with Caliban isn’t enough to liven things up.
Nunn’s direction adds absolutely nothing new to this play whatsoever. I have seen children’s productions of The Tempest which have been more creative and amateur productions which have been more original. It doesn’t look like much effort was put into Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set and costume design, which seems to use desolation and destruction as an excuse for laziness.
Some less-than-impressive set pieces bulk out the second half to about twenty minutes longer than it should be. We see the three goddesses in a haphazard, carnivalesque masque, and Ariel (a grating Tom Byam Shaw) floats about looking bored. Shaun Davey’s mock-Elizabethan music is turgid, and is sung dreadfully by some members of the cast.
The performances are little more than competent on the whole. Giles Terera, Clive Wood and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo respectively stand out as being better than the others, but maybe that’s because they have the best lines. The relationship between Michael Benz’ Ferdinand and Hopper’s Miranda is like the leading couple in a school play.
There are two redeeming features to this production. Firstly, Paul Pyant’s lighting offers intrigue when it is desperately needed. Perhaps more importantly, it feels like Fiennes is acting in a different play. He is grounded, human, and touching, offering a calm interpretation of Prospero. His speeches are spellbinding, and hint towards a tortured inner struggle. Maybe this is exactly what Nunn was trying to do; by making the rest of the production dirge, the sense that Prospero is an outcast is heightened. Somehow, I doubt it.
This production is stuck in the past, and the company fail to realise that we live in the twenty-first century. It’s a wonder this has gone down so well with certain critics – but then maybe that backs up the point that this feels like an establishment production of the seventies. This is how Shakespeare shouldn’t be done.