There is a great deal of publicity about the use of contemporary technology that has been applied to make the new production of The Tempest at Stratford as magic as it should be and to stage something the infamously difficult and often boring Masque properly through innovative use of video affects and action capture. It also allows one to appreciate how much of the actual play is Masque-like, influenced by that strange, overly-expensive court entertainment. And it turns out that all this is deservedly praised. The collaboration of the RSC with the IT company Intel and the Imaginarium Studios is a complete artistic success.
But the real emphasis should be, I think, that this is a production of the play that is a sincere and layered interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s last, greatest and most magical works. The real triumph of the production is not just in the imaginative use of the modern technologies, it is in the seamless integration of these technologies into a profound and moving rendering of the text.
Greg Doran, the director of this new production which is, in a way, the Christmas production for this year, has – as always — done his research on the text and the context and the subtext; and he has worked his actors into a real team each of whom clearly understands every word that he or she is speaking and the weight of every speech in building the story and revealing its nuances and multiple meanings. More importantly than the rendering of the magic elements of the tale, more importantly than the imaginative and technically astonishing use of technology that make Ariel and Caliban into believably mythic creatures,that enable us to see Ariel in particular flying magically as a spirit while also dancing on thestage, more important than all this is the clarity with which the magical language of this text itself is presented. The use of IT is a bonus, but it is ultimately not necessary for the presentation of the text by this team.
This is a totally engaging and moving production from the famous opening of the tempest itself to the final, quiet moments of Prospero as he abjures his magic and then begs for our applause as a release. Every aspect of the complex romance of this drama is clearly presented. The dangers, the confusions, the revenge story, the relationships and the magic are all presented as a spectacle before your very eyes, but with memorable and apt readings of virtually every line of the text.
High praise must go to Simon Russell Beale for his playing of a multi-faceted Prospero, grave and playful, a frightening autocrat at times, wry, complex, believably intelligent and deeply angry, accepting of his own guilt and also his own contribution to his downfall and wanting some sort of revenge and closure that can also enable his forgiveness; he presents Prospero as profoundly thoughtful and in charge of his magic after years of struggle to understand it, and also true to his memories and his darker self while sublimating or controlling them. He is a loving father and a loyal friend as well as a magus.
Mark Quartley is an outstanding and particularly memorable Ariel, working brilliantly with the technologies that enable us to see him in so many guises. His feelings and fears are strongly conveyed, so that he becomes a touching centre to the play as important as Prospero. Joe Dixon is both aggressively angry and surprisingly moving as Caliban, someone who would vote for and follow a Donald Trump out of his pain and need for revenge – as this time he is following the brilliantly funny Stephano of Tony Jayawardena and Trinculo of Simon Trinder. Trinder presents us with a superb modern equivalent for an Elizabethan clown.
The production resonates with the sense of alchemy and magic that must have captivated and awed its first audiences, and especially James I, who believed in all this magic stuff. Jenny Rainsford is a brilliant, touching and feisty Miranda, convincingly sixteen and thus both loving and irritated by her dad and ready to fall in love with the first apt candidate who comes along; yet also fortunate in her choice (engineered by Prospero, of course, who knows that the more he abuses his future son-in-law the more Miranda will want to help and defend him). Daniel Easton makes a plausibly attractive and functional Ferdinand, quite a contrast to his crazy, murderous father.
All the poetry of this most beautifully poetic play is conveyed. Not a foot is put wrong. Ely Condron, Jennifer Witton, and Samantha Hay are memorably striking and appealing as Iris, Juno and Ceres in the central Masque; and the music and singing in that scene are vivid and memorable. The very flashy and spectacular special effects (not just in the Masque but throughout when they can enhance the presentation) are integrated into the production so that they truly do lend magic to the proceedings and do not overwhelm or distract from the actual play; but rather they are there to illuminate and deepen the experience of the text that Shakespeare created.
This is a glorious and sublime theatrical event and the entire cast, production team, musicians, designers, video experts and director have all done an impressive job. Try not to miss this one! It is a unique way to experience this wonderful play.