Left to Right – Mark Quarterly as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in RSC’s The Tempest
William Shakespeare’s The Tempest by and large, has been both a platform for theatrical effects and also one of his most curious pieces of theatre. In the special effects department, thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s three-way collaboration with the computer company Intel, and Andy Serkis’ motion capture company The Imaginarium Studios, the production currently running at The Barbican is a triumph. Utilizing various digital projections, encompassing the ship-wreck beach set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the motion capture effects lend a mystical and wondrous presence to Prospero’s island. The fluid movement and timing goes hand in hand with Mark Quarterly’s whimsical and scene stealing performance as the fairy Ariel, his partially motion captured movements are evidential that the new ways of achieving theatrical effects through computers can be possible and could provide similar opportunities for future productions.
As a play, The Tempest is very limited on plot, neither having the familial strife of The Winter’s Tale or the psychology of Hamlet. What it does have going for however, is the invitation for audiences to experience the wonders of the island, much in the same way as A Midsummer Night’s Dream indulged in the frolics of the fairies. Connecting the two plays, places authorial context on Shakespeare’s bookended life, beginning his career as a young man and stepping away from theatre in his autumn years brought in the powerful parallel to Prospero snapping his magic staff. Simon Russell Beale is in fine form as the eponymous Duke of Milan turned power-weary magician who is coming to terms with his loss of influence and the inevitable loss of imagination. At times however his performance felt dwarfed by the sheer scope of the production’s effects. Thankfully his final scenes and soliloquy are all the more moving as the night of theatre draws to a splendid close.
The rest of the company did well in their supporting (if thin) parts, being something of a surrogate for the audience as they experience the trials and strangeness of the Island. Gregory Doran’s direction doesn’t break new theatrical ground, but is efficient in the handling of both performance and technology. I hope that computer effects for theatre can reach the full potential in bridging technology and live performance. It’s still a work in progress, but experimentation has been the key to elevating the medium. Despite its shortcomings, whether it is in regards to the material or the crowd pleasing special effects, there is something magical and sublime about The Tempest that still has audiences enraptured four hundred and six years since its premiere.
RSC’s The Tempest runs at the Barbican Theatre until 18 August