January 11, 2017, by Peter Kirwan

The Tempest (RSC/Live from Stratford) @ The Broadway, Nottingham

Much has been made about the technical innovations of the RSC’s current production of The Tempest. Taking the (somewhat tenuous) premise that the play was designed as Shakespeare’s greatest experiment with the cutting-edge technologies of his own time, the RSC has partnered with Intel and Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium studio to create a series of avatars of Ariel that an actor can perform live onstage. It’s a fascinating and worthwhile experiment, and one I wish I’d had a chance to see in the theatre.

The interval feature (excellent, by the way, for any producers watching this – exactly the kind of thing that justifies the format) showcased the many talents that had gone into creating, rehearsing and integrating the avatar, and made a fine case for its inclusion. Via live broadcast to cinema, however, the projected Ariel felt literally flat. As portable screens swooped around the stage, showing a blue nymph, what the cinema screen captured was a flat, fuzzy image, with the curves of the screen making it seem narrow as well as flat. While the occasional close-ups on the screen allowed the cinema audience to see something of the artistry of the creations, closer attention also revealed the time lag and unsynchronised mouth movement in relation to Mark Quartley’s live performance. This was, perhaps, the biggest disappointment; the time delay destroyed the effect of the liveness that is meant to be this technology’s key advantage. I’m sure it was spectacular live, however.

Worryingly, at times of particular technical density, the feed started distorting too, which led to some tension in the cinema. Thankfully the feed survived intact, and the audience was treated to a fine Tempest, whose strengths were in the performances rather than the visuals. It was frustrating how much the production seemed to want to trumpet the visuals, leading to some of the dullest scenes – a bizarrely static opening storm; a beautiful but interminable masque; a scene of fiery hunting dogs that, again, looked great but buried the actual action (the clowns being hunted). The real visual coups were Ariel’s appearance as the harpy, one of the few moments when the projection was allowed to dominate the stage, overpowering the nobles, and the evocation of Ariel being locked in a tree, with the avatar growing to a towering height and slowly hardening and crackling into branches.

Yet despite the visual noise, the production knew when to shut up, especially to strip out all background noise (and often even light) to hear the lead actor speak. Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero was a little bit of everything, creating one of the most complex versions of the character I’ve ever seen onstage. Beale’s trademark humour and empathy were both on display, but downplayed in favour of a gnarly bitterness that he spent the two and a half hours overcoming, managing to carry out the difficult task of creating a clear emotional arc for the character. He was tender with Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda, but the key relationship was with Ariel. Quartley was at his best when freed from the avatars. Weirdly, he reminded me of no-one so much as Sheldon Cooper: tall, awkward, blunt and with piercing eyes, he served Prospero but also served to make him uncomfortable. His somewhat confused query ‘Do you love me, master?’, performed as if he was trying out the words, prompted Prospero to sob; his indifferent ‘Mine would, were I human’ caught Prospero so off-guard with the spectre of his own inhumanity that he screamed, deafeningly, twice into Ariel’s face. Quartley moved with extraordinary control, balanced on toes and with arms straight down to his sides, always staying uncannily other, and in doing so he became Prospero’s means of seeing himself.

Miranda and Ferdinand (Daniel Easton) also served primarily to mark Prospero’s emotional journey. Rainsford was an expressive Miranda, although her over-use of tremolo in her vocal delivery was exaggerated to irritating effect in the audio feed. Both lovers played up the hostility towards Prospero in the initial meeting, Miranda coming into her own as she voiced her anger and had to be forcibly threatened by Prospero before she would quieten. Ferdinand never seemed to fully forgive his father-in-law for the indignities he suffered, and even though he later praised his father, even in the last scene he fixed him with a hard stare. These scenes managed to capture affection between the two, particularly in Miranda’s discomfort with social customs of contact, holding out her hand unsurely to make a connection with Ferdinand.

Joe Dixon’s Caliban was, fascinatingly, a human version of the life-size puppet last seen in the Little Angel Theatre’s production at the RSC back in 2011. Elements of a turtle were combined with a curved spine and hunchback that made him a physically awkward, cowed figure. But the strength of Caliban was in Dixon’s soft-voiced, innocent performance. He carried a fish as a comforter, and treated everyone around him with an open-eyed awe, but also knew enough to understand and be visually terrified when he sensed pain coming. Such a sympathetic Caliban meant that Prospero’s violence did not need to be over the top to come across as cruel, and in other scenes the production showed the island’s spirits hiding Caliban’s logs and generally tormenting him. The stage was set for a striking final image in which Prospero handed the two broken halves of his staff to Caliban, at which Caliban finally stood up straight, towering over Prospero, and spoke his last words with a hard, firm anger, before throwing the staff aside and storming into Prospero’s cell. The image of a freed man reclaiming some dignity complicated the final scene productively.

Throughout, the production showcased Doran’s talent for explicating the text. While the masque was far too long, the simple clarity of it – two beautiful soprano singers joined by a rustic peasant dance – actually enabled me to appreciate the content of the masque far more than I ever have before. In the scenes of the nobles, even though they were somewhat sprinted through, James Tucker’s outstanding Alonso established the emotional stakes in a performance that kept Alonso downstage with Joseph Mydell’s Gonzalo trying desperately to lighten the tone; Alonso was, very clearly, in a different story to everyone else, and his understanding of his own loss pervaded the play. The fast-talking Antonio and Sebastian got the scathing and quick-witted tone of the two spot-on, although perhaps too fast for sense.

The Tempest is, in my experience at least, rarely a funny play, but the production found some fine comedy in the speed at which Miranda and the nobles fell asleep when magically compelled (Alonso halfway through a word) and in the always entertaining performances of Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder as Stephano and Trinculo. Trinculo was a classic sad clown with a horn to honk as he reeled off puns and a fine line in audience banter, while Stephano was an Indian butler who jumped at the chance to play the imperialist. The scenes were light, but a welcome relief from the emphasis elsewhere on the visuals.

Few things were resolved in the final scene. In addition to Caliban’s brief moment of seeming rebellion, Oscar Pearce’s Antonio also seemed far from subdued by Prospero’s display of power. Interestingly, Prospero delivered his ‘every third thought will be my grave’ directly to Antonio, before Antonio turned and stomped out. In his arc from rage against the conspirators to rage at himself when faced with Ariel’s superior humanity, to his snapping of his staff and his almost humble, almost contrite greeting of the nobles, Prospero sacrificed his spirit of vengeance and replaced it with an attitude of forgiveness but also resignation, as if realising that it was more important he show forgiveness than that reconciliation be achieved. Following Ariel’s quiet departure, the production pleasingly ended not with spectacle, but with Prospero alone in a spotlight, still negotiating what kind of peace he was looking for.

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