Thursday, August 03, 2017

THE TEMPEST at the Barbican - The Bard goes digital...

For a play about the use and misuse of magical powers, I have not yet seen a production of THE TEMPEST that was particularly filled with wonder.  It's almost as if directors are afraid to embrace it, as if they are worried that it will be criticized as being too obvious, too much like the over-produced Shakespeare productions of the actor/managers of old.

So it was a surprise to hear that Gregory Doran's new RSC production had gone for a tie-in with Intel to include video projections and motion-capture technology - well if that wouldn't bring the wonder then something was seriously wrong!  The other selling point was that Simon Russell Beale was playing Prospero which in itself is a bit of a special effect.

I am still unsure where I sit with THE TEMPEST, it has one of my favourite Shakespearean speeches and other moments of great poetry but the fragmented nature of the plot means that the vengeful Prospero, by far the most interesting character, is frequently absent from the stage.  We seem to spend an awful lot of time with the Milan/Naples faction of lost lords, none of whom are interesting.

Prospero was Duke of Milan but was deposed by his brother Antonio, aided by the King of Naples.  Helped by courtier Gonzalo, Prospero escaped with his young daughter Miranda in a small boat, also laden with his magic books.  They land on an island where Prospero discovers Ariel, a spirit trapped in a tree by the now-dead witch Sycorax, and her disfigured son Caliban.  Prospero easily subjugates both but promises Ariel he will release him one day.

Prospero learns that Antonio, the King and his son Prince Ferdinand are on a boat nearby so he conjures a mighty storm to sink the ship and the passengers wash up on the island.  Prospero and Miranda discover Ferdinand and the young couple - of course - fall instantly in love.  The surviving passengers remain lost until Prospero brings all together, finally reconciled with friend and foe alike.

For all it's whiz-bang graphics, at the production's centre was Simon Russell Beale troubled Prospero.  It was an interesting performance, shot through with Beale's very human qualities as an actor, none more so than his reading of the wonderful "Our revels now are ended..." speech.  Rather than playing it for just the poetry of the words, he spun the words with a real feeling of bitterness; it felt like his Prospero was aware that his life has been wasted on his island and it seemed that he is realization of Miranda's love for Ferdinand will leave him truly alone.

The play's climactic scene - where Prospero finally gathers all the characters of the island and the shipwrecked boat together - was played very mournfully, Prospero's muted forgiveness of his brother and the King for overthrowing him, as well as forgiving Caliban for his murderous plot with the drunken servants, seemed more like a man who is almost broken with the weight of seeking vengeance.  However his final speech - where Prospero pleads for the audience to give him his freedom now his magic has been abandoned - was very moving.

The always dependable James Hayes was great fun as the drunk butler Stephano although a little Simon Trinder as the jester Trinculo went a long way.  Jenny Rainsford was very likeable as Miranda and I liked Mark Quartley as Ariel, a role possibly made more difficult by the technology, but he made the spirit a real presence with his hesitant tiptoe walk and clambering about the set.  Joe Dixon was also fine as Caliban but again seemed imbued with the mournful feel of the production.

The big selling point - going by the size of the Intel logo on the poster at any rate - was the use of computer graphics and motion-capture and they certainly were arresting and occasionally thrilling.  Stephen Brimson Lewis designed a large standing set of a shipwrecked hull and from above the stage there is a cylindrical shape which occasionally descended, such as when Prospero reminds Ariel of how he was trapped in a tree by the witch Sycorax - in an instant the tree seemed to appear from nowhere, it's spindly branches cracking and groaning, only to vanish as quickly as it arrived.

I noticed the occasional flash of light on Ariel's costume which showed where the motion-capture sensors were; at certain moments Quartley would make a movement and suddenly Ariel was projected onto the stage trapped in the tree, flapping above the stage like a frightening phoenix or walking through the air high above the stage.  The disappointing thing though was I would rather have watched the ethereal Quartley than any video-game approximation of him.

The computer graphics came into their own in Miranda and Ferdinand's wedding masque where the three goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno serenade them with operatic voices.  As they do this, the stage was flooded with almost fauvist landscapes, vividly coloured mountains and fields as well as glowing peacock feathers, and multi-coloured flowers appearing on the goddess' dress as she hovered above the stage.

An interesting experiment certainly but the wrecked ship set was a cumbersome one and left little space for the video projections to really work on the whole of the stage; I feel it would have worked better if the set had occasionally broke apart to give a space for the projections to fully transform the stage.

I am glad I saw this version of THE TEMPEST however but for all the IT bells and smells, it will stay in the memory for the essential human element of Simon Russell Beale's troubled and conflicted Prospero.

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