The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon
I first saw Simon Russell Beale on stage when I was still at school, in another RSC production of The Tempest, in which he was a physically unlikely but utterly compelling Ariel. Since then, enough years have passed for me to consider lying about my age, meaning that Russell Beale has now graduated to playing Prospero. Now that was a prospect that had me scurrying to the RSC website to book tickets.
And he doesn’t disappoint. This is a masterful performance by a master performer. He’s good at suggesting the various layers of Prospero, from his tenderness to his daughter, to a finely delineated mix of anger at his usurpation and guilt that his neglect allowed it to happen. The moment when he forgives his usurping brother is especially beautiful.
But if it was the return of the mesmerically brilliant Russell Beale to the RSC that had me packing my bags for a trip to Stratford, most of the pre-publicity about this production has been about the technology involved in it. In partnership with Intel and Imaginarium Studios, this show features the first live theatrical use of motion capture technology, to create avatars of Mark Quartley’s lithe and watchful Ariel, which are controlled by the actor’s own movement, frequently giving us two Ariels for the price of one (although this technology cannot come cheap). So, does it work? Does it overshadow the actors? Yes, and no, respectively, but I’m not sure it adds very much. The Ariel avatars are fun, although I suspect they are better viewed from front and centre stalls than our perch in the cheap seats (one end of the Upper Circle). From here, the sequence in which Ariel appears as a Harpy might as well have been a pre-recorded projection, as Quartley was hidden from view (he was perched at the side of the stage one level down from us, so that even leaning perilously forward all I could just see was a glimpse of one of his one shoulders). Quartley’s best moments were his one-on-one moments with Russell Beale, especially his delivery of the line “Mine would sir, were I human,” which sums up Ariel’s strange, otherworldly emotions.
Seating gripes aside, there’s no denying that this is a gorgeous production. Framed between the giant rotting timbers of a wrecked ship, projections evoke Prospero’s spirit-filled isle. More projections are used in the masque sequence, with its three operatic singing goddesses. It’s a huge contrast to the last production of The Tempest that I saw, which was set in a prison and used rubbish as props (see here). Do I have a favourite? No. I’m just glad British theatre has room for both.
As well as the technology, there are some great performances. I especially liked Jenny Rainsford’s engaging Miranda, Tom Turner’s caddish Sebastian (brilliant moustache!) and the comedy duo of Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder. The moment when the latter hopped down into the audience and onto an audience members’ lap was a very funny. Wonder if the audience member ever reacts badly?
But in the end, it’s Russell Beale’s show. The most moving and powerful moment comes not from the flash-bang whizzy technology, but simply from him standing alone on stage with a simple spotlight. I’d follow him through the storm anytime.
The Tempest is at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 21 January, before transferring to The Barbican in London.