The RSC’s latest production of The Tempest is causing quite a stir at the moment – even among those who don’t usually take an interest in the theatre. The reason is that this production incorporates ambitious uses of projection mapping and motion capture technology. The set – the wrecked hull of a ship – is augmented by vast, moving projections that transform it from rocking ship to turbulent undersea, to enchanted forest.
The effect is both captivating and frustrating. The audio visuals work best when they are bringing the sea and the island to life. I have never seen a more spectacular shipwreck scene, with a lifelike rocking of the ship and vivid images of bodies tumbling through the water are projected onto a cylinder onstage. Digital projection allows the landscape to shift from underwater to forest and back again – at times it was even like a magical underwater forest – everything you expect from a sorcerer’s island. Thanks to these projections, Prospero’s recreation of Ariel’s years in the pine tree becomes a scene of physical and emotional torture, in which we see Ariel once again imprisoned in its boughs – it’s also the only moment when this Prospero appears to be truly cruel. And yet, sometimes the effects feel overdone – Ariel’s hounds of hell were too much for me, the wedding masque was overlong and the digitally projected dresses on Juno & Friends were overkill.
Far more striking than the projections is the fact that Mark Quartley’s Ariel wears a mocap suit throughout, allowing his movements to be animated and enlarged into spirit manifestations. This works when he is enchanting Ferdinand in the guise of a sea nymph, and when he is presiding over the waters with an eagle’s wings. It works less so well when his spirit form is being projected onto a black flag flying above the stage – the suspension of disbelief, for me, was lost. Also, in spite of all the technology, Quartley’s Ariel never manages to be sufficiently ethereal. This might be down to the sinewy suit he wears, or the fact that his movements were boldly athletic rather than quick and lithe, but the overall effect was good but not great.
And this is where the production really falls down for me: the performances are solid but not great. I’ve seen two outstanding productions of The Tempest in the past decade – a previous RSC take starring Patrick Stewart and Dominic Dromgoole’s production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in which Tim McMullan and Fisayo Akinade were outstanding and Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox made my sides hurt from laughing.
Simon Russell Beale’s approach to performing Shakespeare has always thrilled me – the verse trips off his tongue as though the words had just formed in his head, making every scene feel like reality rather than drama. And yet, when it comes to Prospero, this ability becomes a weakness: Prospero is meant to be larger than life, especially in the early stages of the play, where he doesn’t have much stage time.
For me, at least, Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic characters. After all, the tempest is raging within him as well as around the island. SRB’s natural delivery means that he never manages to convey the very dramatic emotions – rage, obsession – that drive Prospero in the early stages of the play. He is more like Leonato preparing industriously for the arrival of his distinguished guests than a man hellbent on revenge. The crucial moment – and change of heart – that occurs when Ariel shames his master by saying that were he human he would pity the prisoners, loses its impact if Propsero has never been that angry to begin with.
Ultimately, it’s a production that has a lot of good things about it – but only the technology seems really fresh. Everything else, I felt I had seen before. Joe Shire – understudying Joe Dixon – seemed to relish the role of Caliban, but I found the production’s interpretation of Caliban too overtly troll-like for my taste. Shire really took to the role, though, and added his own nuance to Caliban’s pain and frustration – the final scene where he finally walks upright and strides into his cell with his Prospero’s broken staff won me over entirely. Simon Trinder’s Trinculo seemed to have walked out of an episode of The League of Gentleman and he and James Hayes as Stephano never really achieved the energy and chemistry I have seen in other productions. You leave not exactly disappointed, but with a sense of exciting possibilities left unfulfilled.