In so many ways, Trevor Nunn’s production could have been staged a century ago. There are occasional modern video-projection effects and the odd modish touch such as sprites performing an aerial ribbon sequence, but the core of the aesthetic of what is, surprisingly, Nunn’s first ever Tempest is almost defiantly traditional.
Ralph Fiennes is the Gielgud de nos jours in his concern for the weight of each word and the rhetorical music of set pieces. His later speeches here, “such stuff as dreams are made on” and “I’ll drown my book”, are precisely pitched (although he renders the epilogue with an odd flatness). Each gesture, each stressed word is considered; however, he perhaps ought to reconsider the occasional rapid shake of the head which, with those flinty features (albeit partly hidden behind a thicket of beard), make it seem as if Werner Herzog has momentarily transformed into Leonard Rossiter.
The nobles, the comic characters (Nicholas Lyndhurst in a Mummerset accent? Really?), the young lovers, the counter-tenor singing of Ariel, all are present and classically correct. Nunn cleverly takes a cue from one of Ariel’s remarks and periodically “divides” him among three performers, reminding me of a bizarre German production of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha that featured a tripartite protagonist, with an acting Gandhi, a singing Gandhi and a dancing Gandhi. Here, though, it is part of the magic of the isle.
But how much magic is there? Moments. Ferdinand and Miranda’s log-carrying scene is truly touching, but much of the rest of the time, Nunn’s arithmetical fidelity means that Michael Benz and Elisabeth Hopper are playing dippily naive teenagers. Now and again, Tom Byam Shaw as (the main) Ariel hits a note of ethereal wistfulness, but more often he has been directed simply to be otherworldly in his speech patterns. Since his 2004 Old Vic Hamlet I have been unconvinced by the results of Nunn’s generosity towards younger actors; with the lovers and spirits here, less authenticity in casting might have led to more truth in performance.
There is also one verifiable 21st-century element: the notion of Prospero as director-cum-stage manager is emphasised by the fact that designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has reused the fake proscenium arch he fashioned for the Haymarket’s 2009 production of Waiting For Godot, right down to the torn-up boards in one of the side alcoves.