Last night I finally managed to watch Gregory Doran’s new production of The Tempest with the RSC, unfortunately tickets for the stage version were entirely sold out so I had to settle for watching a live stream at the VUE. I have problems with the format of theatre screenings so perhaps some of my complaints wont be valid in regards to the actual production.
‘The Tempest’ is the first play of Shakespeare’s that I really understood and enjoyed thanks to a week long course I did at RADA when I was 15, and under the tuition of a wonderful man named Vivian we studied this text. Due to that I have quite a close attachment to this play so combined with the new stage effects by intel and the imaginarium, never done on stage before, I was very excited. I suppose it makes sense to get those effects out of the way since that’s probably the main point of interest for most people. Where the effects excelled was in the projections on the set which were used in a variety of ways, from the simple changing the scenery to forests, beaches, fens, etc they looked fantastic, to the more magical with Prospero creating a mark with his staff. These effects were particularly well executed in the wedding masque sequence as the stage was transformed into a variety of idyllic watercolour landscapes, as Ceres emerged from the stage, her dress flowed out (imagine the end of Defying Gravity with Elphaba’s gown) and flowers were projected all over her dress. Moments like this were truly magical and its hard to imagine them being done justice without these fantastic projections and despite the magnitude of the visual effects, the text wasn’t forgotten. Elly Condron as Iris, in a wonderful costume had a truly incredible understanding and control of the language and was a joy to watch, definitely one of the most impressive performances of the show.
However these effects weren’t always so successful, the creature effects were often somewhat lacking, the worst offender being an almost laughable Cerberus. Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, had a variety of avatars, all of which moved responding to movements Quartley made live on stage. I certainly appreciate the innovation here and the fact that this is (as far a I know) new ground for theatre, however I felt it was somewhat lacking. I understand that capturing live on stage allows people to feel as though they’re seeing something unique each night, I’m just not sure the technology is quite there yet. The animation looked awkward and like something you might expect in an old video game (as did the model for the harpy) and I did notice one or two occasions when it wasn’t quite in sync. I just wonder if perhaps they would have been better served with pre-rendered figures, the avatars were the focus with Quartley often performing the movements in the corner (although this may be a result of the camera work understandably focusing on the avatars). I just think that Quartley’s movements were probably largely choreographed anyway and a smoother animation would have made the production more cohesive.That being said there were some fantastic moments involving Ariel, namely a reenactment of his entrapment in a tree prior to the play (with wonderful projections on the stage) and a second act dance in the forest with multiple avatars.
The set was, in true RSC tradition, fantastically made up, with the ground looking like dry earth that was easily transformed by projection and what looked like the hull of a ship framing the action. The magic wasn’t all done by projection either, one moment that particularly stand out is when Alonso and his party come across a banquet in the woods and as the table cloth is ripped off, there seems to be nothing supporting it. Mixing small moments of practical work such as this in with the heavy visual effects really helped to ground the action and are a great example of theatre at work.
Moving on to the less technical aspects of the play, I was in general quite let down, I still very much enjoyed the production but there were many areas it could have been stronger. I should first make clear why I don’t love these recordings of theatre as it could very well be responsible for some of my nit-picking. I feel as though these recordings sometimes forget the difference between stage and screen and they pull us far too close in to the actors, with extreme close up and a variety of angles. What this does is it cuts off the majority of the action on stage and brings to light the differences of stage and screen acting. These actors perform 8 times a week and they have to get the words and the emotions out to the hardest of sight and hearing and the people on the back row of the third balcony. This isn’t conducive to naturalistic acting which is where close ups excel, all a close up does here is show that the actors aren’t crying at all and telegraphs incredibly heightened emotions and acting. That being said, I found the acting in this production to be pretty lacklustre which is disappointing after some truly wonderful performances at the RSC this year*. Simon Russel Beale lacked any presence or gravity as Prospero, he clearly understand the text wonderfully and he gets that across, but he often looked quite lost on stage and failed to get across the cantankerous attitude he talked about in the pre-interviews. He gained some steam as the production went on with two great monologues in the second half and by the end of the play he was connecting more to his words but still lacking the weight an actor like Anthony Sher could have brought. Mark Quartley did an admirable job as Ariel and had really fantastic physicalistion, although conceptualising Ariel as cold and detached without an ounce of playfulness really limited what he could do with the role. Joe Dixon was particularly disappointing as Caliban, I felt as though he never truly committed to the physicality and was often just not present in the scene with responses that felt rehearsed and unjustified, never actually in resonse to what was being said. Thankfully he was accompanied by Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder who bought a tremendous amount of energy to Stephano and Trinculo respectively, with fantastic chemistry and comic timing. I didn’t love the extent of Trinculo’s clowning with full face make up, an incredibly annoying horn and clown laugh, and both took a lot of liberties with the text that didn’t always seem entirely justified. But they were both totally committed to everything they did and they bought a huge amount of humour to a strangely humourless production for the RSC who often find humour even in the darkest plays. Jenny Rainsford did a sound job with Miranda, which is a hard part to make not annoying, ignoring her overly tremulous voice, she bought a fair amount of spunk when needed. Alonso and his party were servicable with some fantastic moments but largely they failed to make you believe or care for the characters they were playing as they didn’t connect to many of the emotions of the scenes,not heled by a particularly frustrating Antonio and Sebastian.
Barring the amateurish opening sequence on the boat which lacked any impact in any way at all, the play never lagged thanks to its steady direction and fantastic visual effects. It’s also worth mentioning the original music, the RSC has always had beautiful live music and this was no exception. Despite its faults, I really did enjoy this production, its a wonderful play and Gregory Doran and his production team really managed to bring some magic to it.
*The great acting refers to the astounding performance by James Corrigan in the terrible production of Two Noble Kinsmen and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar in King Lear, two of the best performances I’ve ever seen on stage. Also Anthony Sher, Antony Byrne and David Troughton in King Lear, the leads in Dr Faustus and Jamie Wilkes in Two Noble Kinsmen.