In the second scene of The Tempest, Prospero famously recounts to his daughter Miranda how the pair came to inhabit their magical island all those years ago, peppering his story with calls to heed him: “Dost thou attend me?” “Dost thou hear?” Reminders to listen well have never seemed more pressing than at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Tempest, now playing at the Barbican, where director Gregory Doran and a long-toiling team from Imaginarium Studios have peopled this isle full of wondrous distractions. There’s a lot to love about this production, not least the warm, freshly rendered performance by Simon Russell Beale, but the greatest enjoyment comes not from looking but from listening.
The technological centerpiece of Doran’s Tempest is Mark Quartley’s live performance capture Ariel: Quartley wears a full-body suit stocked with sensors that allow his every motion to be duplicated across a series of projected figures, taking all different forms. It’s often cool, especially when Prospero reminds Ariel of how the spirit was once imprisoned in a cloven pine and we see his avatar struggling for freedom, but it’s never quite clear whether we’re meant to look at Quartley himself during these moments of multiple Ariels or whether we’re supposed to regard him as a sort of puppeteer off in the corner. No matter where we look, though, Doran seldom precisely strikes the balance between visual fancifulness and storytelling: Ariel’s avatars appear during several key speeches or narratives, and the visual wonders invite the audience to ignore what’s being said in these moments (particularly because the RSC has spent months hyping the technological achievements as the big reason to see this show).
The show springs to life most richly in the moments free from technological intervention (although I quite liked Finn Ross’ more familiar video projections which spring to life on Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set and costumes, captivatingly lit by Simon Spencer). Quartley’s Ariel, when not in digital morph mode, gives an enchanting performance. The uniqueness of Ariel’s presentation, if anything, highlights the spirit’s struggle to define himself, hovering on the border between magical creature and flesh-and-blood human, and Quartley does tense, moving work in his scenes with Beale.
Jenny Rainsford and Daniel Easton offer an excitingly robust take on Miranda and Ferdinand, with Rainsford’s decidedly and delightfully unrestrained and un-princess-like Miranda taking the reins in her blossoming romance with Easton’s cocky but good-natured Ferdinand. In the scenes between father and daughter, there are even amusing traces of Lear and his Fool in Miranda’s ready rejoinders to, and expansive knowledge of, Prospero. Joe Dixon brings a likeable light touch to his unusually funny Caliban while James Hayes and Simon Trinder nicely differentiate the clownish Stephano and Trinculo, the latter in literal clown makeup, through a series of audience asides. And while the traditionally lackluster scenes featuring Prospero’s longtime enemies, the shipwrecked courtiers, never become totally gripping, Joseph Mydell does his best to animate them as old, wry Gonzalo.
So far, I’ve only mentioned Beale in the context of other performers, and that’s exactly what makes his Prospero such a success: Beale forges individual, surging relationships that carry the weight of unspoken past history with each of his scene partners. It’s easy to believe that this Prospero has withheld Miranda’s childhood story from her, and that he’s been struggling to keep that secret from the child he loves. His ultimate pardon of Caliban seems to come from the consideration of over a decade of conflict between them (Doran mostly leaves the pair’s colonial connection un-probed). Beale registers most of the time as a regular guy – there’s a sense that, prior to the tempest and the accompany revenge plot, he was a fairly laid-back islander, and his friends and servants seem surprised by his sudden proclivity for violent outbursts.
I found myself most entranced by the visuals during the normally inert wedding masque, here enriched by two operatic sopranos (Samantha Hay and Jennifer Witton) singing Paul Englishby’s vigorous tunes, jubilantly staged by Lucy Cullingford. Leaving behind technology, that lush spectacle tells a story through dance and music and costumes alone.
In the final moments of the play, Prospero, who has divested himself of his magical powers, speaks directly to the audience while standing in a harsh, unfiltered spotlight: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown,/And what strength I have’s mine own.” I doubt it’s what Doran and his high-cost, high-tech production were going for, but I’ve never felt more convinced by the meta-theatricality of Prospero’s argument: in the absence of illusion, technological or otherwise, Beale’s own rough magic, the spell cast by an actor upon an audience, is more than enough.
The Tempest is playing at the Barbican Centre until August 18.
Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC