Trevor Nunn’s London production of “The Tempest” with Ralph Fiennes has already racked up advance ticket sales of 1 million pounds ($1.6 million).
That’s great for theater coffers, and not so great for theater goers.
There are pretty doublets and jerkins to look at. Ariel flits across the stage in a flying harness. Nobody trips over the props. And it all has as much urgency and energy as a refrigerator defrosting.
Fiennes seems a bit lost as Prospero, the magician at the heart of the play. He raises his voice when he’s angry and lowers it when he’s not, just as he should, and yet the animating fire of inner life rarely seems to flicker. His final valedictory speech is full of pauses which demonstrate feeling without conveying it. It’s slow stuff.
This impression of unearned emotion runs through Nunn’s direction too. When Sebastian (Chris Andrew Mellon) is tempted to murder his sleeping brother Alonso, King of Naples (James Simmons), there’s little sense of the weight of monarchical hierarchy or terror. This isn’t the fault of the actors, who are perfectly competent. It’s just that Nunn hasn’t provided a rich dramatic universe of relationships for them to inhabit. They might as well be planning to descale a kettle as murder a king.
Some of the actors fare better than others. Elisabeth Hopper tries hard to show her youth and innocence as Prospero’s young daughter Miranda. Too hard. The result is a performance of wide-eyed smirks and telegraphic cutesiness.
Nunn’s approach is death to the comedy scenes too. Both Nicholas Lyndhurst (Stephano) and Clive Wood (Trinculo) are fine comic actors. Their drunken routines still pass by in a fog of pointless shtick.
It’s curious that a director famous for his musicals (“Les Miserables,” “Cats”) should cast actors who can’t sing in tune for the masques.
There’s one plus to this hands-off approach. Nunn employs Giles Terera, a black actor, to play Caliban in an otherwise white cast (bar the understudy). The audience can judge for itself the consequences of Prospero’s paternalistic colonialism, without any tub-thumping.
Other than that, it’s more of a squib than a tempest.
With “The Tempest,” a great play gets a dull production. Over at the National Theatre, it’s vice versa.
Arnold Wesker’s 1959 work “The Kitchen” is set among the ovens, griddles and hobs at the back of a large restaurant. There’s a mere scrap of plot which concerns Peter, a preparer of boiled-fish, and his affair with married waitress Monique.
The rest of the play is taken up with snatches of scrappy dialogue between the Italians, Germans, Frenchmen, and Jews who work in the kitchen. There’s a political message buried somewhere among the contrived and stilted exchanges about the indignity of modern working conditions.
Director Bijan Sheibani works magic with it. On a realistic set with gas flames and hobs, he uses several effective tricks to fill the Olivier stage with spectacle. There are beautifully choreographed ensemble scenes. There are freeze-frames to highlight revelations. There are expressionistic dances.
The highlight comes at the end of Act 1 during a particularly stressful lunch service, performed to a sinister whirling waltz tune. The huge cast of 30 criss-cross amongst each other shouting orders, chopping food, serving meat. It becomes more and more hectic and outrageous, and ends with a laugh-out-loud coup de theatre.
If Sheibani can do that with such unpromising material, it’s tempting to wonder what he might make of “The Tempest.”
“The Tempest” is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Information: http://www.trh.co.uk or +44-845-481-1870
“The Kitchen” is at the National Theatre. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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