Trevor Nunn’s production of The Tempest seems to have been created wholly as a vehicle for a star performer. It’s otherwise marked by a dearth of ideas and often feels like many of those involved are coasting, none more so than Nunn.
This is not true of Fiennes; apart from a tendency to stoop and twist in a manner more appropriate to Caliban than Prospero, his is a commanding and vocally fine performance. His “Ye Elves of Hills” is hypnotic and momentarily lights up the stage. It’s unfortunate, then, that he seems to have been dropped willy-nilly into a different production. Making Shakespeare’s shortest work last for nearly three hours is no mean feat. Nunn’s sole direction must have been “go slower,” and it makes for a dismal evening.
The songs are a particular low point. “Come Unto These Yellow Sands” has multiple Ariels, some insipid singing, and a chorus of refugees from the The Lion King carrying out some appallingly literal choreography. Tom Byam Shaw’s Ariel (the main one) is of the most obvious kind, a fey young man, tripping around with tiny wings on his shoulders. The spirit’s name is taken literally too, with an over-use of Peter Pan flying on strings and a Disneyesque masque scene of floating goddesses.
Elisabeth Hopper is a public schoolgirl Miranda, finished presumably by some desert island Roedean, simpering and weak-voiced, while Michael Benz’s wimpy, blonde Ferdinand is hardly any more masculine. Nunn is to be applauded for giving opportunities to young talent but this is a big misfire. The rest of the cast come off best when experience is evident. Several of them carry over from Nunn’s previous production, the rigorous revival of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where they seemed far more comfortable.
One might have expected some inspired clowning from Nicholas Lyndhurst but his lank-haired, West Country Trinculo is oddly unengaged and laughs are small and infrequent. The gaberdine scene is painfully unfunny, despite some energy injected by the excellent Clive Wood as the drunkard Stephano. Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek come strongly to mind with these two in the scene where Ariel puts words into their mouths, and it’s almost amusing, but Giles Terera fails to make a mark as Caliban. If there was capital to be made out of casting a black actor in the part, it doesn’t register. Nunn seems to be making a point and then failing to do so.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set looks oddly familiar, a broken down theatre, which helps the masque aspects of the play and the sight of Ariel swooping down (with giant wings this time) during the banquet is the most striking visual of the evening. The combination of Nunn and the star has ensured a huge advance at the box office and Fiennes is the reason to see this production.