Royal Shakespeare Company’s High Tech Tempest – Does It Work?

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RSC The Tempest

Did the RSC’s high-tech The Tempest work with or against Shakespeare’s dark, enigmatic comedy?

The Tempest apparently premiered with a performance at Whitehall Palace in 1611, performed by the King’s Men before King James I and his court. Whilst we do not know much about this occasion, we can assume that His Majesty was pleased with Shakespeare’s superb word-painting, conjuring up Prospero’s island without the need for special effects – Caliban’s ‘The isle is full of noises’ speech comes to mind. The masque, where goddesses appear to entertain Ferdinand and Miranda, would however have made much use –we can assume- of costumes, props, dance and lighting effects within the candlelit hall…modern on-stage technology of the 17th Century?

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In 2011, Declan Donnellan’s minimalist, Russian-language production for Cheek-by-Jowl toured the UK, impressing with its simple, earthy nature which seemed to absolutely pinpoint the links to the rough-and-ready style of Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre. The (surtitled) text and characterisations were paramount and the production remains the best I have ever seen of this enigmatic, deeply-satisfying play. So, what need of technology…?

However, I am not one to insist that “smaller is better”. I have been much-interested during the last few years as on-stage technology becomes a regular part of stagecraft: Headlong’s 1984, some of Katie Mitchell’s work (Waves at the NT or Fraulein Julie at the Schaubuhne, Berlin, for example), or the New York Met’s massive Wagner Ring tetralogy. The RSC advance publicity machine informed us that for Gregory Doran’s new production in the main house, they would ‘be using today’s most advanced technology in a bold reimagining of Shakespeare’s magical play, creating an unforgettable theatrical experience’ (RSC website). Reading this some weeks before my visit to Stratford mid-January, I considered that of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest was probably the one which would respond to the motion-capture technology which is the speciality of Imaginarium, combined with Intel’s computer expertise.

I had a nagging worry that the RSC’s new show might allow the technology to overcome the actual acting performance. Would Doran succumb to the Wow factor…or would this noted scholar rightly insist on the prominence of the text and get the balance just right?

The answer to that is a bit of both. The play opened with a splendid, high-tech storm which made much of Stephen Brimson Lewis’s huge set which suggested the rotten bones of an abandoned ship as well as a blasted forest. The words, as so often, were sacrificed to realistic storm sounds…what do the characters say to each other and do we really have to go back to the text to find out? Grumble over, I enjoyed the first appearance of Mark Quartley’s conventional but acrobatic, clearly-spoken Ariel – both in person and via several avatars. He/they appeared several times throughout the production and I have to say that after a while and with one exception, it just got a bit boring and “samey”.

The exception was when Ariel is transformed into a harpy and menaces the king and company. Apart from the clumsy black screen descending from the flies in order to accommodate projection –inevitable in a deep stage like that in the RST- this was excellent use of technology in order to enhance the play. Other examples abound, including the effective hell-hounds which chase Stephano and gang, and the projected suggestions of forest, sand and sea which were projected onto the stage floor. Perhaps the best use of the technology came with the afore-mentioned masque which is often somewhat boring and sometimes cut. On this occasion, Jacobean-style costumes for the singers were given a Disney-esque colouring which extended to the changing shapes and projections – kitsch, undoubtedly, but linking brilliantly to the original genre of the Jacobean masque: perhaps the phrase I want is “beautifully, exquisitely overdone”!

What of the actual play – did it sink like the royal vessel in scene one? No; not at all. Just like Antonio’s ship, the production arose out of the threat of the high-tech waters and in the main used them to enhance its effect. Simon Russell Beale, with King Lear and Timon at the National behind him, was a tremendous, complex, self-loathing Prospero, strongly supported by the majority of the supporting company, notably Oscar Pearce’s Antonio and Joseph Mydell’s Gonzalo.

The excellent, diverse and long-serving RSC actor Joe Dixon bravely presented a beautifully-spoken Caliban who was as much “monster” [it’s in the text] as deprived native of the island – an unconventional reading for today, not playing to audience sympathies, which paid dividends. He was as much at home with the comedy, acting as sidekick to the hilarious, ad-libbing clowns of Simon Trinder and Tony Jayawardena.

Drama, poetry and comedy; it’s all in Shakespeare’s masterly play of The Tempest. Oh, yes, and to the greater extent the techy-stuff did its bit to reinforce that!

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