From Ibsen to Maid in Manhatten, Shakespeare to Potter, Ralph Fiennes isn’t afraid to swap the prestige of the stage for silver screen success. Now the Dark Lord himself takes a turn as Prospero; iconic lead of The Tempest, currently running at London’s Royal Haymarket Theatre.
The original desert island story, The Tempest follows Prospero, usurped Duke of Milan, on his quest for revenge, employing the power of spirits to trick his enemies and regain the dukedom for his daughter. Trevor Nunn’s production focuses on drawing out Shakespeare’s subtle metanarrative, exploring how theatre works as illusion – an ambitious and original outlook that has divided critics.
Provoking several laughs, Fiennes’s star performance combines revelry with malice, power and emotion. He recites his lines with quavering force invoking a subtle blend of authority and vulnerability, again suggesting the production’s emphasis on exaggerated theatricality. The set reflects his state of mind; a vast and bare stage hazed in dreamy shadows and projected silhouettes. Fiennes plays an isolated figure in his lonely search for catharsis by way of a healthy dose of magic and fantasy.
Shakespeare’s final solo play-and arguably his finest-returns to a traditional neo-classical style which is emphasised in Nunn’s deliberate and careful direction. Combined with an almost slapstick physical comedy, exemplified in Nicholas Lyndhurst’s drunken West Country take on Trinculo, this meant an entertaining, if prolonged, production (especially when watched from the bum-numbing seats squeezed into the lost heights of the upper gallery).
Luckily, the exciting combination of tragicomedy and masquerade kept it enthralling. Critical reaction to the play has reached fever pitch at the three hour duration, lengthened by the peculiar and indulgent musical interludes. These songs reach a bemusing balance between ridicule and dreamy mysticism. At times, the production was in danger of finally bridging the genres and becoming ‘Tempest the Musical.’ A sprightly and androgynous Ariel, singing in a quavering falsetto voice, brought contemptuous laughs from the audience. Even Ralph gets in on the act with a few lyrical exploits.
Yet these strange songs are at the heart of the production’s success. The overt and jarring theatricality draws focus onto its own nature as a play. It ironically draws links between Prospero’s ‘art’ and dramatic illusion. Prospero’s rejection of his magic at the end of the play has been seen to parallel Shakespeare’s farewell to playwriting. Nunn’s production highlights Shakespeare’s final questioning over the mechanisms and potency of all his theatrical works.
The director’s inconsistent pacing failed to create tension. But this is the point. This production is a tribute to bathos; the contrast of powerful existential exploration and the dubious spectacle of sprits flailing around on wires. As a result we are drawn into the very nature of theatre.
The Tempest runs at the Royal Haymarket theatre until the 29th October.
Text: William Severs
Photography: Catherine Ashmore