Thanks to the headline presence of Ralph Fiennes, Trevor Nunn’s new production of “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s last full-length play, has already bagged £1 million ($1.6 million) in pre-sales. And auds are treated to an outstanding perf, with Fiennes in vintage tortured-patrician mode, a welcome antidote, perhaps, to his ferociously evil, nasally challenged Voldemart in the Harry Potter franchise. Oh, that this “Tempest” were a monologue, however. Practically everything else about Nunn’s staging ranges in innovation and quality from mid-range uninspired to genuinely cringe-inducing. While Fiennes is a major artist in full command of his powers, once-great helmer Nunn is currently sucking fumes.
Things start promisingly because they start with Fiennes. His intensity and focus as he stands alone — dressed in rags and a tattered cape, tracing a circle in the air with his staff and silently mouthing incantations — command attention instantly. He then steps to the back of the stage but remains visible as a scene of shipwreck (which he has just conjured) ensues.
The framing context is clearly established: This production will be about Prospero’s magic, about his control over the island where he has been shipwrecked for 15 years, and about his retribution against the mutinous brother and other Italian courtiers who deserted him there. Other possible readings, such as the play as a parable of colonialism, will be left to one side. Fair enough, as this foregrounds the production’s most valuable resource.
But the overall challenge, which Nunn has not overcome, is how to deliver the sense of magic and wonder the play requires on a West End proscenium stage without, apparently, much of an FX budget. What is attempted in the shipwreck scene — flashing lighting (Paul Pyant); video of rain and lightning (Ian William Galloway); swelling score (Shaun Davey); and actors moving together to simulate the rocking tide — feels desperately old-school. In the age of 3D and HD, theater needs to work harder to deliver spectacle; a metaphor or concept that lifted us out of literalism would have been helpful here.
What comes after is always well-spoken, but sluggishly paced and sometimes surprisingly undercast. Second-billed Nicholas Lyndhurst (“Only Fools and Horses”) and Clive Wood attempt an old-style British comedy double-act as Trinculo and Stephano, but it never quite takes off, though Giles Terera shines as a ferocious, hunched Caliban. The scenes of the courtiers’ exhausted wandering around the island are clearly delivered but dramatically limp. Elisabeth Hopper tries too hard to play petulant teenager as Miranda, but shares inspired moments of charm in her interactions with Michael Benz’ competent Ferdinand.
The decision to spilt Ariel into a principal actor (Tom Byam Shaw) and two subsidiary representations of his “divided self” (Steven Butler and Charlie Hamblett) pays dividends in scenes where Shakespeare requires the character to be several places at once, but their delivery of sung passages proves weak and sometimes sounds out of tune. What’s most painful to watch and hear are the set pieces by the ensemble playing the island spirits: The earthbound simplicity of Jami Reid-Quarrell’s choreography implies a limited skill range among the performers.
Fiennes’ appearance on stage always offers welcome relief. His level of engagement and his convincing shifts from moving gentleness with Miranda to rage against his wrongdoers are riveting. The clarity and thoughtfulness of his delivery of the verse is a master class. Though Prospero is usually a part for an older actor, Fiennes plays his age (late 40s) here, and it makes sense (as Nunn points out in a program note, the character is, after all, the father of a 15-year-old). But this is a role we might see Fiennes play again — one hopes in a production that comes close to matching his talents.