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Review: The Tempest (Barbican)

The RSC's production, starring Simon Russell Beale as Prospero has transferred to the Barbican

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Moved and stirred as I was by Phyllida Lloyd's Donmar Tempest set in an all-female prison, as well as other recent updates of Shakespeare that excitingly contemporise the great works, there is something refreshing about seeing a production of The Tempest that simply allows full rein to the sheer magic, wonder and beauty of the play.

Such is Gregory Doran's enchanting and enchanted RSC staging, newly arrived at the Barbican after a sell-out run in Stratford. Given the much-discussed – and stunning – visual contributions of video designer Finn Ross and 'digital character creators' The Imaginarium Studios ('airy sprite' Ariel appears simultaneously as a fantastical big screen creation and a live actor), this often feels like the Spielberg Tempest.

But if there is any Shakespeare play that can take this kind of hi-tech, wow-factor grandstanding, it is this one: banished Duke Prospero is, after all, a master of magic. His illusions, as well as the huge storm that shipwrecks the central characters on his island, lend themselves extremely well to the astonishing visual effects on display here. Thanks to the power of digital art (plus Simon Spencer's gorgeous lighting) Stephen Brimson-Lewis' imposing, skeletal ship's hull set transforms into impossibly beautiful pastoral scenes, garishly colourful fantasias and unsettling visions of apocalypse, all before our very eyes.

Underpinning all this flashy spectacle though, is a rock solid understanding of, and respect for, the text. Simon Russell Beale is Prospero and once again he proves why he is one of the greatest actors of his generation: completely convincing as the over-protective father to Jenny Rainsford's lovable if too-knowing Miranda, yet also as deposed Duke, and wielder of extraordinary other-worldly powers, he presents a figure at once flawed but magnificent, potent but tragic. His final "let your indulgence set me free" speech – arms wide, palms displayed upwards pleading for our approval, in a simple spotlight, contrasting starkly with all the folderol we've previously gorged on – is chillingly powerful in its simplicity, and something that will remain in the memory for a very long time.

In this production, the murderous tragicomic trio of drunk Stephano (James Hayes, priceless), clownish Trinculo (Simon Trinder, delightfully gross), and semi-human Caliban (Joe Dixon, as sympathetic as he is repellent) are among the most persuasive I've seen: if you're not exactly rooting for them in their plan to bring down Prospero, you certainly don't want them to get off the stage. Joseph Mydell is touchingly staunch and dignified as Prospero's solo ally.

As Ariel, a lesser actor might be upstaged by the jaw dropping on-screen effects, but Mark Quartley's haunting performance combines a weird physicality and melancholic dignity that transcends all the spectacle: when finally freed from Prospero's service, his sad, un-histrionic walk away – unadorned by any of the technical thrills we've previously associated with the character – is deeply moving.

I didn't understand why Prospero's treacherous brother appeared to be around 30 years younger than he is, and I didn't care very much about Miranda ending up with her lacklustre suitor Ferdinand, but those feel like minor quibbles when considering an entrancing, technically sophisticated production that simultaneously presents a classic play in all (or most) of its glory, while tantalisingly exploring the technological advancements within theatre. Anyone unfamiliar with The Tempest would get a great overall handle on the play after seeing this version, while the purists will be transported. Magnificent.

The Tempest runs at the Barbican until 18 August 2017.

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