It’s fair to say that till mid October 2011 I was a British theatrical stage virgin. I’ve been to few operas, quite a few gigs and live performances but somehow avoided theatre. I guess being a foreigner and not knowing the language in a way that would make me feel 100% comfortable and understand the play as it should be was the major showstopper. And I was never to crazy about the whole thing in the first place.
I mean, don’t get me wrong — I have a perfect understanding why theatre is in so many ways more difficult, challenging and unforgiving than cinematic production. While a movie director have those simple yet powerful tools like pan, crop and zoom of the camera allowing for focusing on actors’ faces and emotions, on the big stage you’re being served complete overview. It’s purely the performance itself directing viewer’s attention towards specific characters or locations. If you sit too far, you may have a perfect tactical advantage for slingshot fight, but you can’t see actor’s faces being nuclear reactors of emotions. If you sit too close — well it’s kind of like watching a tennis match from the 1st row — your neck will protest after 5 minutes and you’ll very likely miss out 25% of action, uncertain where to look.
Anyway, so what changed, you may ask. The answer is rather simple — not much. The main reason I decided to go for The Tempest was its lead role — Prospero — being performed by noone else but Ralph Fiennes himself. Perhaps it’s not a very good reason to go to a theatre, but I’m too old to care.
The thing that bothered me the most was the author of the play — Willie Shakespeare. As I mentioned earlier, I feared the complexity of phrases and colloquialisms in a modern English, so what on earth was I supposed to do with an Olde one? Still, it was Ralph Fiennes we were talking about — 2 times Oscar nominee for The English Patient and The Schindler’s List, a brilliant, brilliant actor known from The Reader, Constant Gardener, or as Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort — so I dug out my semi-classy jacket and ventured into West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket.
I’m not going to lie about it — I did miss a quarter of the dialogs due to my language gaps, but the story was rather easy to follow and I didn’t have any deal breaking problems with it. I also had a very good seat which allowed me to notice all nuances and minimal facial expressions on actors’ faces. There was a scene which made me compose into my seat rather breathless, with Ralph furiously expressing his hatred 3m away from me (just outside of the spit zone;) — the anger was visible on every single muscle of his body, he was super tense and, damn, his eyes had this I-will-kill-you-your-family-your-friends-and-kittens expression. Goosebumps.
But Ralph was not the only strong character in the play. I know it’s a bit of blasphemy but there was another, whose performance was equally strong if not better! I’m talking about Tom Byam Shaw playing Ariel — Prospero’s magical servant spirit. While Fiennes fights with many emotions and inner dilemmas, Ariel dreams about one thing — freedom. During these few hours you can see how fascinated he becomes with human behaviour and feelings, how strange and yet exciting it is for him. Finally he starts to wonder whether he is human?
I found his performance very refreshing to otherwise heavy play (and his Brighton Pride like costume helped a lot;) though the moment that I will remember for a long, long time was when he is released from Prospero’s duty. Imagine a delicate, faint creature, suddenly opening massive, massive wings (6m span easily) and ascending to “heavens” with accompaniment of dramatic voices and brilliant lighting effects. Completely breathtaking and I could tell that the whole theatre was mesmerised as much as I was. I would honestly go and watch the whole play again just for this very scene.
And there was Elisabeth Hopper playing Prospero’s daughter Miranda, who I found very contemporary and fun to watch yet completely unmatched for Shakespeare’s climates. Nicholas Lyndhurst – some kind of local celebrity, who I personally never heard of, but is clearly highly experienced with theory of being utterly wasted. Very good performance by Giles Terera in the role of Caliban — a tormented, deceiving and unhappy creature, enslaved by Prospero. And finally a small army of less significant characters, that I could easily live without.
While scenography was rather plain, I didn’t mind it. In fact I quite liked that I could focus on the actors rather than be distracted by all the craziness happening on the stage. Though I must admit that there was a lot of dynamism and drama introduced by Video and Lighting Design — it was subtle but very effective. Kudos to Mr Paul Pyant, Ian William Galloway and a group of designers called Mesmer, which I believe was deeply involved in the project as well.
Did I like my first play? Well, yes and no. You see, aside from these few fantastic actors, the second plan roles were very bland and boring, and the whole thing was rather badly organised. There was some ridiculous flying involved (there even is a position of Director of Flying and Movement mentioned in the cast!) and strange costumes, but that I could live with. It was also a bit on a long side, but I guess you don’t argue with dead authors. What completely killed the experience though, was a cat-murder singing. Awful! With all due respect to Trevor Nunn (the director), I really wish someone Simon Cowelled his ass for this. You don’t invite a superstar performer to torture him and the audience with me attempting to sing under the shower, FFS!
Summing up, I don’t think it was a bad first time. Annoying at times, perhaps it could have been better, but I’d like to think it was good overall. Something like 6.5/10 stars. And let’s be honest, how often can you actually see amazing craftsmen like Ralph Fiennes in action? Not that often, I imagine…