While the board at Shakespeare’s Globe has recently reasserted the importance of original practices at the South Bank venue, the Royal Shakespeare Company is breaking new ground with a production that could be characterised as ‘future practices’ at its Stratford-upon-Avon home.
This production of the Tempest attempts to break new boundaries in theatre-making with the very first use of “live motion capture” in a major classical stage production. Mark Quartley, the agile and resourceful actor playing Ariel, sports a lycra-style leotard that is sensor-equipped, and transforms his movements into a computer-generated avatar that is projected in real time to float around the stage as he speaks the words.
Truth to tell, the video imagery of the avatar looks frequently blurry and out-of-focus; it seldom seems to summon any really magical qualities. It feels more like a mere gimmick than I assume was hoped for, and Quartley is more effective when he is able to act, unfiltered by technology, as the character and not as an avatar.
The customary magic of the play resides, instead, in the simpler glories of Shakespeare’s script of healing and forgiveness, as Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, shipwrecked on an island with his daughter Miranda, comes to be reconciled to letting go of his faltering powers and parental control.
In the middle of all the trickery, it is – as ever – the gimmick-free simplicity of Simon Russell Beale, dignified and moving, that actually steals the show in his return to the RSC for the first time in over 20 years.
His remarkable clarity of voice, even in the frequently subdued tones he speaks in here, is matched by a clarity of thought that makes every line resonate with feeling. The existential strangeness of characters like Caliban – his spine apparently worn on the outside of his back – is summonsed in the costuming Joe Dixon has to wear, not video; and Gregory Doran’s production frequently plays up and indulges the comedy at the expense of quieter moments of reflection, with Trinculo (played by Simon Trinder as a tartan-trousered jester in teary clown-face and sporting random tufts of hair) and Stephano (Tony Jayawardena) providing a hilarious double-act.
There’s strong support, too, from Daniel Easton and Jenny Rainsford as the young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda. But the actors also frequently have to compete with Cirque du Soleil-like theatrics that flood the stage in psychedelic video-generated landscapes and ethereal opera-lite singing.
The next week will bring two more Tempests to UK stages with the Donmar’s all-female version led by Harriet Walter at King’s Cross and another at the Print Room in west London. They are unlikely to match this production in high-concept budget, but they may get closer, with any luck, to the heart of the play instead.