It is often argued that 'The Tempest' is about vengeance. But I strongly disagree. What it is really about is a father wanting to care of his daughter - “I have done nothing but in care of thee” says Prospero to Miranda, and I believe him. But the traditionalist view still seems to have the upper hand in this new version by Trevor Nunn. In fact, of all the versions of this play that I have seen, this is the one that least moves the analysis of Shakespeare's final play further forwards. It turns out to be almost identical in style and mood to the first production I saw some 40 years or so ago.
You would hardly think that you were on a remote island paradise when confronted with Stephen Brimson Lewis's bombed-out warehouse of a set. A huge, half-crumbling brick wall faces the audience from the back of the stage and what look like opera boxes stand at each side of the stage. I guess the idea is that this island has been inhabited before, presumably by a community of music or theatre aficionados. It seems enigmatically odd.
The pace of this production is slow to the point of being laboured. Though 'The Tempest' is not such a long play (almost half the length of Hamlet) it drags on and on, leaving us with a rather gruelling running time of 3 hours. And that matters because, as Trevor Nunn rightly indicates with the use of an hour glass throughout the play, time is pressing. But you would hardly think so since there is little sense of urgency, except for Ariel scampering on and off at regular intervals. In particular, the sea-storm at the start of the play has about as much energetic urgency and frantic desperation about it as an afternoon in a grim public library.
The cast features numerous spirits which turn out to be the fairy variety in this case – all sylph-like characters who wear an odd assortment of clingy pyjama-type costumes and sport blond bushy or spiky hair, and are dangled from wires and flown across the stage. Chief among them is Ariel, played here by an extremely slender Tom Byam Shaw. There are a couple of neat tricks, for example when Ariel is dashing around the ship during the storm, he sets-off flashes of flames, and the dinner table provided for the King of Naples and his entourage suddenly loses all its succulent delights – instantly, before our very eyes!
Ralph Fiennes is a very serious and extremely deliberate Prospero. Indeed, there are times when he seems almost manically focused, with never the merest hint of a smile or a vague indication of a sense of humour lurking beneath his magic garment. His staccato delivery rather drags out his speeches, even though he makes good in the Epilogue where he begins to provide a real sense that he is as human as the rest of us after all. Even if he seems a rather dull and tedious Prospero, he does make us believe that he has magical powers when he mutters and mumbles spells under his breath, especially before he conjures-up the sea storm.
I was expecting rather more from Trevor Nunn, especially as this is the first time that he has directed this play. However, there is little in the way of real inventiveness and the setting is inexplicably incoherent. Some of the singing is rather lame, almost amateurish at times, though it improves in the masque, and the amplified music all comes from one side of the auditorium which seems peculiar in these high-tech days of audio wizardry. More importantly, we learn nothing new about Prospero or indeed about any of the other characters, leaving one with the bitter sense that we have travelled this dreary old road many times before.
"tedious and misguided production "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Ralph Fiennes at the commanding centre of Trevor Nunn's melancholic production"
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"Ralph Fiennes is the best thing in this rather slug-gish production of Shakespeare's shortest play."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"a deeply traditional production"
Michael Billington for The Guardian