Transformed from the evil wizard Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies into an exiled duke on an isle that’s full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, Ralph Fiennes still manages to cast a spell and pull all the strings.
Ralph Fiennes (Prosepero) and Elisabeth Hopper (Miranda) in The Tempest at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London Photo: Catherine Ashmore
I can’t remember a Prospero who so thoroughly takes charge of his own show, and so effortlessly, too. Fiennes, of course, is a natural spell-binder, as well as a natural Shakespearean, and Trevor Nunn’s full value, three-hour production - which, it is claimed, opened to an advance of £1m at the box office - is a wonderful showcase.
Queues are already forming early each day along the Haymarket, and it seems likely that the production will transfer to New York sometime soon after the nine-week run - perhaps we could have the brilliant Al Pacino Merchant of Venice in a spirit of cultural exchange?
Fiennes certainly takes his time. But nobody takes their time more movingly than he does. And reeling off the great speeches would be too obvious - he hammers them out, with odd caesuras, holding them up to the light and avoiding at all costs that silken Gielgud rubato.
He projects a deep inner spirituality as he opens his huge book and raises the storm at sea along with his magical staff: the triple threat of a triple Ariel - Tom Byam Shaw is the chief spirit, Steven Butler and Charlie Hamblett his “divided selves”, or possibly ‘elves’ - throw flames as the ship goes down.
The Haymarket is festooned in blue silk, and last season’s Waiting for Godot proscenium, with its plaster stage boxes (designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis) frames the circus-style vaudeville of Ariel’s aerial show, the masque of the goddesses, the magical banquet and the summoning of Prospero’s enemies in full Elizabethan fig.
Among them is Nicholas Lyndhurst’s wonderfully forlorn Trinculo, hanging on to his mini-jester stick to remind him of past (imaginary?) glories on the halls. Lyndhurst has a face like a crescent moon and a jaw that cannot drop any further - he’s in thrall to his own sad predicament, and to the coarse drunken straight man of Clive Wood’s monumental Stephano.
More than any other Shakespeare play, The Tempest is about political and personal change, forgiveness, revelation and reconciliation - it never fails to be astonishing, even in harsh or bleached productions. Nunn’s version is not soft focus, exactly, but it is deliberately melancholic and romantic.
James Simmons, for instance, makes a great deal of Alonso’s apparent bereavement. Andrew Jarvis doesn’t waste an ounce of lyricism in Gonzalo’s instructive speeches. And Giles Terera’s athletic Caliban is only vaguely monstrous, and is touchingly reunited with his potential rape victim.
There’s far more whimsy than bestiality in this reading, but Nunn and Fiennes, you feel, are hitting the right sort of nerves for these unhappy times - we yearn for stability and harmony after regime change and radical upheaval. And we want to share in a royal wedding as innocent and optimistic as that forged between Michael Benz’s callow Ferdinand and Elisabeth Hopper’s delightful Miranda.