Runs until 21st January in Stratford-upon-Avon
Barbican Run 30th June – 18th August 2017
In cinemas from 11th January 2017
Among the productions designated the role of RSC family-friendly Christmas show, The Tempest must be one of the odder choices. In the past, the company have trodden safer ground, with shows like the smash hit Wendy and Peter and Downton Abbey cash-in, Much Ado About Nothing. However, this play, reputed to be Shakespeare’s last sole-authored work, is a far more complex and difficult beast than its two predecessors. The Tempest has one of the richest afterlives in adaptation and appropriation, with the postcolonial interpretation, developed in the 1960s and 70s, being particularly important to our modern understanding and perception of it. Gregory Doran, unusually for a director who has often attempted to update and radicalise Shakespeare in his surveillance camera Hamlet or African interpretation of Julius Caesar, largely eschews that postcolonial reading of the play. Instead he offers a magical, audiovisual feast for the eyes and ears which, while breathtaking in its design and aesthetic, left me a little hollow in terms of the play’s potential to speak to contemporary political situations and underdeveloped characterisation of many lead roles.
“a magical, audiovisual feast for the eyes and ears”
The production’s most notable aspect is the RSC’s groundbreaking collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, co-founded by actor Andy Serkis. This is the first time performance capture technology has been used to render an animated character – Prospero’s spirit servant, Ariel – live onstage and, for this reason along, The Tempest is laudable. Overall, the way this was rendered wasn’t as jaw-dropping a spectacle as anticipated. However, given that the technology onstage is in its infancy, the range of options it allowed the actor playing Ariel and the production’s design team to create, ranging from an androgynous harpy to a wraithlike spirit was spectacular and indicated where theatre might be headed in future decades, for which the RSC should be commended. It also helped enormously that Mark Quarterly’s performance as Ariel, both in performance capture and when he appeared physically onstage, was one of the show’s strongest, displaying the blend of magical wonder and weary resentment towards his shackled existence which makes the character so interesting and timeless.
Other noteworthy performances were those of the play’s two fools, Trinculo (Simon Trinder) and Stephano (Tony Jayawardena), whose buffoonery and contemporary ad-libs alongside the actual verse gave the sometimes disjointed production a much needed shot of comedic adrenaline whenever they appeared. Gonzalo (Joseph Mydell), the most honest and reputable of the stranded party who land on Prospero’s island, also gave a strong, consistent performance, creating a very real sense of pathos as the play reached its conclusion. Finally, the much anticipated return of Simon Russell Beale to the RSC turned out to be a mixed bag. In the National Theatre’s 2014 production of King Lear, Beale, despite his diminutive stature, towered as the titular monarch, blending ferocity with frailty. His Prospero felt like an almost calmer, dialled-down version of that performance, which only properly took flight in the second half. However, it was worth the wait. Beale’s breaking of his magical staff and final monologue, in which he pleads with the audience to free him through applause, were arguably more magical than any of the effects on display.
The major drawbacks of the production lay in some of the lazier interpretations of other characters and the play’s cut, which needed to be far leaner. For instance, Doran chose to keep the usually cut masque scene in which the goddesses Iris, Juno and Ceres are conjured by Prospero for his daughter, Miranda (Jenny Rainsford), and her betrothed, Ferdinand (Daniel Easton). The technicolour display which preceded was beautiful but, by the time twenty minutes had passed without switching back to the play’s main narrative and the goddesses had started to deliver a cod-opera, me and my fellow reviewer turned to each other with a silent acknowledgement of the ludicrous decision to arrest the play’s development so thoroughly. Rainsford and Easton’s performances as the two young lovers were also two of the weakest. Rainsford had an odd tendency to warble her lines, while Easton failed to imbue the often irritating and foppish Ferdinand with any substance or strength whatsoever. Equally, the decision to make Caliban (Joe Dixon) a pantomime figure, who appeared constantly caught between paroxysms of heightened grief or drunken euphoria, felt misguided at best and offensive at worst. While it was good to hear lots of the younger sections of the audience enjoying themselves, and Caliban’s tomfoolery in particular, it felt awkward that the most oppressed and complicated character of the play became something to laugh at. In a post Julie Taymor-world, whose 2010 film depicted Caliban as a wronged, bitter native of the island, such decisions felt like a misstep on Doran’s part. This was emblematic of the play’s incompatibility with its “family show” status and, while the production’s design was progressive and breathtaking, it fell short of becoming a true RSC classic.
Image: Topher McGrillis RSC