Review: The Tempest (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Simon Russell Beale plays Prospero in the RSC’s digital technology-infused ”Tempest”

For months in the run-up to this production, the RSC has made it all about the technological innovation. We’ve been promised an alliance with global leaders Intel and the creative wizardry of Imaginarium Studios, collaborating with artistic director Gregory Doran and his team to offer something that’s never been seen live on a stage before.

All of which means that, like it or not, this will go down as the technology Tempest. The truth is that Simon Russell Beale‘s rather magnificent Prospero deserves better.

In a move that will, I suspect, divide audiences, Doran and his designer Stephen Brimson Lewis have embraced the opportunities that their IT partners have opened up and pushed the boundaries of what’s possible. Thus Ariel wears a motion-capture body suit that allows versions of his form to be projected on a variety of surfaces in a range of guises. References to the spirit’s bursting into flame or appearing as a harpy are consequently realised in literal form in a vast space above the stage.

Likewise, the elaborate masque Prospero conjures up to bless the joining of his daughter Miranda to the shipwrecked Ferdinand is presented in vibrant colours, complete with peacock tails, stylised landscapes and even a mini aurora borealis.

It’s visually imposing – though perhaps not as jaw-dropping as the team had hoped – but has a dangerous down side as well. With everything presented so pre-formed for the audience, there’s precious little left for our imaginations to get to work on. And that means that the technology becomes a distracting diversion, preventing you from getting lost in another world.

The strange thing is that it’s not even necessary. The most effective and powerful moments in the whole production are those where the staging is at its simplest. Brimson Lewis’s fundamental set is a decaying carcass of a sunken ship, and it’s mighty impressive in itself. Put actors of the calibre of Russell Beale in the middle of it and let him get to grips with some of Shakespeare’s most intriguing late poetry, and there’s real theatrical magic at work.

His Prospero is a study in contained, simmering fury. He’s had 12 years on his island to contemplate what he’d do to the brother who usurped his dukedom, and when the time comes his ‘forgiveness’ is palpably reluctant. But there’s real warmth there too, and the quality of his verse-speaking (every iambic line is freshly minted in his mouth) makes it a standout performance.

Elsewhere, Mark Quartley emerges from the curiously confining technology to imbue Ariel with an ethereal, plaintive quality, while Joe Dixon’s extraordinary Caliban – half man, half fish – is among the most poignant characterisations of the night. Some of the comedy grows laboured and tiresome, and Paul Englishby’s score is unusually unmemorable, but ultimately everything else is a sideshow to the visual effects.

As a rather odd choice for the company’s festive family offering, this Tempest will certainly get talked about. Ticket sales are already looking extremely healthy. In the end it’s an interesting experiment into the capability of live special effects which, by strange irony, accentuate a very fine and conventionally dramatic Prospero behind the storm.

Watch our interview with Simon Russell Beale on The Tempest here

The Tempest runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 21 January 2017.