The Tempest – Review

The Tempest. All images Topher McGrillis.
The Tempest. All images Topher McGrillis.

We take special effects in films for granted. In fact, we’ve become so demanding that we are disappointed if we’re not dazzled by state-of-the-art imagery. It’s harder to achieve that same heightened sense of unreality under the harsh spotlights on a theatre stage.

Until now. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, is ending 2016 on a high with a visual spectacular, an extraordinary production of The Tempest that has not only tempted the great Simon Russell Beale back to Stratford-upon-Avon after a 20-year hiatus, but also celebrates a remarkable partnership with companies specialising in 21st century, cutting-edge, technology.

I can hear purists taking a sharp intake of breath. Relax. It’s painless. Of course it’s gimmicky but I think it works. Avatars, motion-capture and stunning backdrops are creating a new, filmic, dimension to theatre.

And where better to try it out than with a story of magic and mysticism?

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On a human level the performances by Beale and Joe Dixon as the monstrous slave, Caliban, are remarkable and deeply moving; Simon Trinder’s jester, Trinculo, and his partner-in-comedy, the drunken butler Stephano (Tony Jayawardena), are hysterical; and Mark Quartley’s nimble-footed spirit, Ariel, who controls the elements and a computerised Avatar, is phenomenal.

Doran looks like he has thrown the entire RSC annual budget at this production, from Stephen Brimson Lewis’s spectacular set, which is shaped like the vast hull of a wrecked ship, to the play’s digital wizardry which is supplied by Intel and Andy Serkis’ The Imaginarium Studios.

The drama even includes opera from three goddesses (goosebumps provided by sopranos Elly Condron, Jennifer Witton and Samantha Hay) and a bit of country dancing.

Some of it looks a little clumsy. The ethereal Ariel, projected onto a screen column which descends from the roof, looks a little naive, but his later reincarnation as a phoenix, which appears after a fully-stocked banquet vanishes before our eyes, is much more successful.

This is probably the first time this sort of technology has been used live in a stage production but I’m sure it won’t be the last. Doran hasn’t forgotten the magic of theatre, he’s just conjured up a fresh spell to create a new, thrilling, dynamic to it.

Simon Russell Beale is exceptionally gifted as an actor and here he gives a tour de force as one of Shakespeare’s great anti-heroes.

Robbed of his title and abandoned, along with his young daughter, to the seas, the former Duke of Milan finds refuge on an island where his love of learning gives him supernatural powers and a thirst for revenge.

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The sticky issue of slavery in The Tempest isn’t avoided in any way. Prospero’s imperialism is blatant as he, firstly, befriends the only native on the island, Caliban, and then robs him of his inheritance, enslaving him in the process. Ariel, too, is enslaved, working for him on a promise of longed-for freedom.

Poor Caliban, too stupid to fight back, is kept in a cave until needed to do Prospero’s bidding. He is verbally abused by everyone – even the spirits of the forest ridicule him. It is a truly touching performance by Dixon.

Swathed in a fat suit and external backbone, his body is covered in filth and he carries a fish around with him which he regularly tucks into his waistband.

When he is befriended by the terrible twosome – Trinculo and Stephano – he is led into temptation and his first taste of alcohol corrupts him absolutely.

Well done to the RSC and Gregory Doran for trying something remarkable, exhilarating and bold. I loved it and I think most theatre-goers will love it too. Is this the dawn of a new age in theatre production?

The Tempest runs in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until January 21. It will be broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon into cinemas around the world on January 11.

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