by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Design by Stephen Brimson Lewis
Digital Character Creation by The Imaginarium Studios
Music by Paul Englishby
Royal Shakespeare Company
Saturday 19th November 2016 , 1.15 pm
Simon Russell Beale – Prospero, the rightful of Duke of Milan
Jenny Rainsford – Miranda, Prospero’s daughter
Mark Quartley- Ariel, a spirit
Joe Dixon – Caliban, son of the witch Syncorax
Joe Shire – master of the ship
Darren Raymond – boatswain
James Tucker- Alonso, King of Naples
Oscar Pearce – Antonio, brother to Prospero, usurping Duke of Milan
Daniel Easton – Ferdinand, son of Alonso, King of Naples
Tom Turner- Sebastian, brother to Alonso
Tony Jayawardena – Stephano, a drunken butler
Simon Trinder- Trinculo , a jester
Joseph Mydell- Gonzalo, an honest counsellor
Matthew McPherson – Francisco, a lord
Oliver Towse – Adrian, a lord
Elly Condron – Iris / sprit
Jennifer Witton – Juno
Samantha Hay- Ceres
Alison Arnopp- spirit
Laura Cairns – spirit
Caleb Frederick – spirit
Sarah Kameela Impey—spirit
RSC’s spectacular poster
This year has been bookended by The Tempest from opposite ends of the spectrum. First the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse performed it as it might have been in 1611 by candlelight, now we have a futuristic prediction of theatre technology from the RSC. As the programme points out, by 1611 there were elaborate masques at court with moving scenery, banks of candles, music. The Tempest shows Shakespeare competing with the masques with “proper” theatre, so it makes sense to throw the works at it … as was done in the 19th century, when the play was an excuse for spectacle.
This collaboration with computer imagery company Intel, prepared over two years is billed as “pushing the boundaries of live theatre.” They have collaborated with Andy Serkis’s The Imaginarium Studio to have Ariel in a body suit with live action motion sensors, so that he can perform all the moves live, with his body projected on high on a gauze tube, twisting and turning in the air. The face is digital, produced after hours of work with Simon Russell-Beale to record Mark Quartely’s facial reactions. The technology owes a lot to Serkis’s Gollum in the Lord of The Rings / Hobbit series. You can see Mark Quartely at the back, or up on the side, performing the actions to generate the hologram.
It was also billed as a “Family show” but I fear much of this version of The Tempest will fail to compensate with digital imagery for bits in-between which would fail to enthuse teenagers. For a first Shakespeare experience, the RSC Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier in the year beats it hands down. Oddly, The Dream also felt more magical without so much technology. My companion adds that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is intrinsically a better play, with which I agree, but I know there’s a major Tempest lobby out there.
Where do you start? The set, the bare bones of a wooden galleon’s sunken hull, was fabulous. The opening shipwreck was rendered into nonsense, mere gabble. Loud music, loud sound effects, shouted lines, didn’t understand a word. Great set, great music, lost opportunity … end result, in spite of the projection making the floor appear to sway, the least effective shipwreck of three versions. We can only compare the RSC version in 2012, and The Wanamaker Playhouse this year. BUT the first use of the suspended gauze was bodies sinking under water.
I have nothing against digital holograms, I was very much looking forward to them. But they were a mild disappointment, suspended up on high, projected on black gauze that had to be lowered. The advance publicity had led me to expect holograms striding around the stage, and I am afraid that is still in the future. We were front central. Our friends in the back stalls row to the side said the moving holograms were very hard to see because of the roof over their heads. That’s not the first time that the RSC have been inattentive to views from the more difficult positions. That’s why we are members and book the first day, and like the critics (and I suspect the director) view from the front centre. Most tellingly, Mark Quartely was such an outstanding Ariel, that he would have been fine without any CGI stuff. His movement was impeccable in the non-digital bits.
Ariel (Mark Quartely) in non-digital mode, with Prospero (Simon Russell -Beale)
Some of it was truly stunning, particularly as we relive Ariel’s live motion capture in a pine tree by the witch (Caliban’s mother). That was tremendously impressive with writhing tree tendrils. The motion capture was partly upstaged by the projection though, which I assume is one technological step back. We had projected sea, forest, stars, storms.
In the wedding masque scene with the three goddesses, the projection image quality was at “gasp!” level. Beautiful. When Juno rose high from the stage with her dress cascading down from her, the projected flowers were something I’d never seen done that well. Because it was all on a 3D moving surface, I’d guess that was digital imagery rather than “projection” but who knows where you draw the line.
The directorial decision to keep Simon Russell-Beale’s Prospero aloof from all the fireworks was the right one. Prospero is always a contrast, relying solely on his innate acting. He has just the one CGI moment where he inscribes a yellow circle around him with his staff. As we discussed afterwards, he is so naturalistic, his timing and delivery so good, that it makes it hard for others to shine next to him. Mark Quartely as Ariel succeeded. After all the effects, the ending with Prospero front stage appealing directly to the audience in a simple white spot was a theatrical moment to savour.
Prospero (Simon Russell-Beale) with Ariel (Mark Quartely)
Caliban … at the end, Prospero was lead on taking a bow, Aerial and Caliban came together next. After complaining of productions where Caliban was reduced as a normal looking argument against colonialism, it was good to see the “monster” restored, ben if somewhat Gollum like. Joe Dixon was a fish carrying, pot-bellied, distorted spine comic Caliban (did they recycle Ralph Fiennes Richard III spine from The Almeida?), and it was a brilliant performance by the actor, especially strong on comedy … but it was never wild nor frightening. Caliban is a devil of a role, because he has to be frightening to Miranda, subdued to Prospero and part of a comic trio with Stephano and Trinculo. I liked Joe Dixon’s Caliban, and the fact that his comedy made him likeable added poignancy to him being left on the island at the end.
My companion disagreed totally, feeling the comedy eradicated our sense of his malevolence towards Prospero. Caliban tried to rape Miranda as a child. Prospero has every reason to loathe him. Caliban’s left behind at the end, but he will re-emerge in all his evil. This is diluted by making him a loveable freak.
L to R: Miranda (Jenny Rainford), Prospero. Caliban (Joe Dixon)
Trinculo and Stephano make up the comedy trio. Stephano (Tony Jayawardena) is the butler to King Alonso and Trinculo (Simon Trinder) is the jester. They took that literally. It is very tempting to make the jester a cook or footman, but we had white clown face, funny hair, checked red and white trousers and a Jacobean ruff. Stephano seemed to be 18th century in costume, though his employers’ Ruritanian military costumes were late 19th century. They were both excellent. Stephano had an Indian accent and he can do stuff with his eyeballs which is hilarious. Excellent directorial idea for the trio when the second half starts … no comedy spoilers.
The courtly crew contrasted well. Joseph Mydell’s Gonzalo (who had saved Prospero twelve years earlier) was always slightly apart, serious, dubious about Alonso and Antonio. Sebastian (Tom Turner) as Alonso’s scheming brother took it as Flashman, which added comedy. When everyone is asleep, and Sebastian and Antonio plan to murder Alonso, so Sebastian can usurp his throne, just as Antonio usurped Prospero, it is physical action, not just talk. They don’t only draw their swords (as in the text), they’re about to plunge them in.
Daniel Easton played Ferdinand, the King’s son, with open sincerity all over his face. The log business with Miranda is one to watch out for. We thought Jenny Rainsford was somewhat miscast as Miranda. She looked too old for fifteen, as well as being slightly taller than Simon Russell-Beale. Her initial costume, in Prospero’s cast-off men’s trousers didn’t help at all … an unusual poor costume choice among so many good ones, and while I can see the logic of her having no adult clothes. I liked past ones with patchwork dresses made up of the “garments” that Gonzalo cast them adrift with; but whatever it needed to be more feminine. This is where you break my authoring rules (never describe the actor, good actors can do anything). I would have cast at 5 foot tall maximum and slight build. There are female actors in their late 30s or even early 40s who could carry off a 15 year old Miranda, but it’s all down to build and height rather than age. This one looked late 20s . Yes, just as so many major actresses did in the past in the role. But I would say it doesn’t work perfectly unless Miranda looks a skippingly innocent 15.
Juno (Jennifer Witton) in the masque sequence … a real soprano
Music was varied. The opera singers for the masque was a major surprise, but the selection throughout was eclectic. Some electronic, some folky, some operatic. The sprites did storming rhythmic work with hand drums too. Caliban did a funny stomp song. What did surprise me was there was no gesture up to the musicians’ gallery at the ending line-up. I even thought “Are they actually there?” They were out of sight.
The sprites wedding dance- it shows the set
Magic? The ultimate play for it, yet A Midsummer Night’s Dream was more magical at the RSC this year, also with a great deal of projection, but without any of the lowered hologram gauze. I’ll be very interested to see this technology next time around, because it will develop. Puck, Titania and Oberon in The Dream are the other obvious ones, but they’ve done it at the RSC already this year, and given the plan to cover every play over six years, it’ll be another four or five before the RSC gets around to it again.
Prospero paints a magic circle …
There is a rhythm, a click, an inevitability of sequence when Shakespeare is going well. And it’s strangely lacking in this production. The play has that built in, because the three sets of people appear separately, so that it is a challenge to maintain flow. There are many great ideas, and moments, but it comes across as a series of sketches. Perhaps the many excellent moments seemed to compete for our attention. It may be the slightly lugubrious lowering of gauze for the CGI …“Here comes the CGI … in a few seconds… hang on …” Maybe, like the Cumberbatch Hamlet it relied too much on the set, so that the set and effects dominate so much visually that they interfered with smooth flow.It may also be that the production is painting the pictures so vividly for us, that it stifles imagination, so we’re spectating in awe, rather than getting involved and entranced by language and character.
Just look at the superb photos above, and you can see it’s a must-see production (and is going to The Barbican for Summer 2017, as well as a January 2017 live broadcast), but whatever none of our group of four felt that indefinable thrill, that urge to leap to your feet, which comes at the end of the greatest productions.
OVERALL RATING ***
Re-read it this morning. All the major essays are absorbing. Maybe the best theatre programme this year.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID:
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times *****
Michael Billington, The Guardian ****
Domenic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, ****
Paul Taylor, The Independent ****
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard ****
Christopher Hart, The Sunday Times. ***
Domenic Maxwell, The Times ***
Mark Shenton, The Stage ***
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
(This section was introduced at the end of reviews this year, but with RSC productions it is becoming so long, that I fear I must abandon it!)
GREG DORAN on this blog
Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 RSC
Henry V – Alex Hassell, RSC, 2015
Julius Caesar – RSC 2012
Richard II – RSC 2013, David Tennant as Richard II
The Witch of Edmonton by Rowley, Dekker & Ford, RSC
Death of A Salesman, by Arthur Miller, RSC 2015
King Lear – RSC 2016
Strife by John Galsworthy, Chichester Minerva 2016
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Propellor, 2013