The Tempest, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

4.00

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 melancholic production, you don't really mind the clock ticking past the three-hour mark.

That time span approximates to 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.

So he really does put on "a show" to achieve his vengeful and conciliatory purposes. Ariel, decorously intoned by a blond and body-stockinged Tom Byam Shaw, flies around on a trapeze and is replicated in two other carbon copies and a tribe of spirits who serve up the banquet, chase down the sailors as hell hounds and join in a rustic bacchanal at Juno's ceremonial rites.

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 and with an impressively fluent 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.

Prospero does what we all want to do: make friends with enemies and move on, leaving the house in good order. This controlling side of him is sometimes tiresome, but Fiennes invests his programme with such charm and sincerity, you find the tone is predominantly one of reconciliation, not vengeance.

Nicholas Lyndhurst, who does too little stage work, gives the sottish Trinculo a wonderful air of baffled timidity, bouncing off the coarse-grained Stephano of Clive Wood.



To 29 October (0845 481 1870)

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