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Theatre review: The Tempest (TRH) 
8th-Sep-2011 11:34 pm
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I'd heard a lot of gossip about how Trevor Nunn's production of The Tempest was a particularly long, slow one, and wondered why this seemed to have taken anyone at all by surprise. After all, although he's been behind many great productions, the director is notorious for his lack of pace. On seeing the show it's clearer why this should stand out as Nunn's determination to find the slowest, most drawn-out way to play any given scene is so constantly on display it borders on self-parody. Who else could look at Prospero's notorious, endless Basil Exposition speech at the start and think "hmmm, but could it go on longer?"

Actually for the first half what distracted me the most was spotting the ideas that, to put it in a nice way, Nunn has coincidentally had quite soon after other people had them as well. Most obviously, the fact that like Declan Donnellan's Russian production, there are multiple Ariels, with Steven Butler and Charlie Hamblett credited as "Ariel's divided selves;" but it's not used as interestingly or as often as in the Cheek by Jowl production, with Tom Byam Shaw mostly playing the part himself. Byam Shaw is rather badly served by the production all round, dressed as a very old-fashioned image of Ariel in heavy makeup and leotard, reminding me of something out of a Cirque de Soleil poster. There's hints of an interesting interpretation in there when he gives Ariel a rather teenaged combination of hyperactivity and pouty strops at Prospero, but these aren't explored much and mostly buried in campery. Meanwhile the scenes where Ariel dresses in drag reminded me of when that was done in Sam Mendes' Bridge Project production last year. Meanwhile Stephen Brimson Lewis' set mirrors the theatre's boxes, like Waiting For Godot did in the same theatre, but these aren't used nor the idea of an overt theatricality particularly explored.

Something that often crops up in productions of The Tempest is to have the sole black actor play Caliban, referencing colonialism and the fact that Prospero has taken the island from its original owner, and made him his slave. This sinister side is not looked into though - astonishingly, in the programme notes Nunn claims he kept the setting Jacobean partly so as not to have colonialism be an issue, and yet this is the casting decision he made. For the most part it seems merely underdeveloped but right at the end it tips over into being actually offensive: As part of a rather sugary take on the ending, Caliban is given a nice necklace and sent off happily, suddenly showing great deference to his former captor; he seriously might as well have called him "massa" at this point. The only upside to this whole sorry mess is that Giles Terera is one of the best Calibans I've seen, and one of the strongest performances of the night. Other notable performers are Michael Benz and Elisabeth Hopper's sweet Ferdinand and Miranda, while Nicholas Lyndhurst and Clive Wood as Trinculo and Stephano get a few laughs in their scenes with Terera. But overall, even bearing in mind that it's one of the most subdued Shakespeare comedies, this Tempest's low on funny moments.

Often a dodgy production can get redeemed after the interval but here things just went from bad to worse. The scenes with the nobles of Milan and Naples are uniformly flat, dull and impossible to care about, but the show's big-name star bears the brunt of Nunn's fondness for taking his time. At the interval I was thinking that Ralph Fiennes suprisingly hadn't put much of his own stamp on Prospero but unfortunately this was to come, as the speeches where he inserts a full stop after every word aren't the problem: They're positively speedy compared to the ones where inserts a full stop after every syllable. cjg1 is such a Tempest fan this is the second one he's accompanied me to, but he admitted even familiarity with the text was no guarantee of being able to follow what was being said, so disjointed was the delivery. This show also challenged Fram for the most times Christopher and I got the giggles. At first during the masque scene, where the Cirque de Soleil theme comes back with a vengeance, and one of the Cirque de SolAriels (with all the makeup and sitting in the gods it's impossible to say which) attempts some falsetto singing and misses by quite some distance. There's also parts of the masque played out so high up that from our angle most of it was hidden by the theatre's chandelier, and Christopher said afterwards that one reason he got the giggles was the fact that it looked as if a bright light was shining out of Juno's arse. Keeping a straight face wasn't easy when the spirits exited the stage either, since they were (of course) on wires and having been flown off gracefully, Iris' leg then swung back into view. We regained our composure but when we got to Fiennes' "But... This. Rough. Magic... I. Here. Ab. Jure." I was off again.

Credit where it's due, one thing that's excellent here is Paul Pyant's lighting, which creates some stunning imagery as well as some of the most effective-in-their-simplicity moments of stage magic. But this 3 hours 5 minutes' worth of a Shakespeare play that usually runs much, much shorter and more coherently is enough to make you wish the ship had gone down with all hands after all.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare is booking until the 29th of October at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
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