First Night: The Tempest, Theatre Royal, London
Fiennes takes stage by storm as £1m Prospero
Wednesday 07 September 2011
Shakespeare's last play is one of his shortest and can sometimes zoom by in 90 minutes. But with Ralph Fiennes at the commanding centre of Trevor Nunn's meditative and melancholic production, you don't really mind the clock ticking past the three-hour mark.
And customers who have allegedly spent in excess of £1m already at the box office will no doubt be happy to get so much bang for their bucks: for once there's a storm in which you can actually hear what everyone's saying.
That time span approximates the "real time" of the action, as Prospero gathers his enemies to his remote island and bids farewell to his daughter, his magic, his spirits and his art. There is a touch of the magus and the prophet about Fiennes, but he's also an unusually virile and determined Prospero: and he speaks the verse so naturally and beautifully.
He emerges quietly from his cell, murmuring to himself as he opens his book and raises his staff. His rough magic is contained within the wider function of theatrical wizardry, as the whole cast of characters will exit through his cell. He remains in the theatre, reliant on our applause, on a set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis that retains the false, tattered proscenium and onstage boxes of last year's Waiting for Godot. So he really does put on "a show" to achieve his vengeful and conciliatory purposes, while Ariel, decorously intoned by a blond and body-stockinged Tom Byam Shaw, flies around on a trapeze.
Fiennes is loving every minute of his creation until he suddenly snaps into mission mode, gathering his project to a head and summoning his final resolution in those great tumbling speeches, which he discharges painfully, haltingly and with an impressive fluent technical accomplishment.
Even the image of his daughter Miranda, impulsively and attractively played by Elisabeth Hopper, absorbed in a game of chess with Michael Benz's fresh-faced, slightly priggish Ferdinand, is one more sleight of hand.
And Giles Terera's feline Caliban – with a leather left shoulder and a curious talon of a hand – is treated like a walk-on. Prospero does what we all want to do: makes friends with enemies and moves on. Fiennes invests his role with such charm and sincerity, you find the tone is predominantly one of reconciliation, not vengeance. We are all slaves, to some extent, practically and emotionally, and it's the tugging poetry of The Tempest that slips the bounds and allows us freedom.
The play is indeed a world of sighs and soothing music, a dream of a pageant before it fades.
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