Gregory Doran’s astonishing production of The Tempest needs a pause for thought over its very conception. A play that is quintessentially about what it truly means to be Human has now joined with that sticker on our billion laptops, ‘Intel’, and their production facility, Imaginarium, to potentially take us on a journey further from the Human, shipwrecked or saved. Yet of course imagination and technology are human products too and what they have produced is a really miraculous piece of theatre, in a visual and electronic spectacle that triumphs because it so serves the actors and Shakespeare’s mind. The theatre is the one place you should ‘keep it live’ and they do. I think it will run and run and may spark a global franchise.
I don’t truly think it’s primarily about the Technology though, as so many careful and ambitious Corporate words in the programme might have it, and with what took two years to develop, although I have never seen so many children in an evening performance exulting in it all. What astonishes in this wonderful show is the conjunction of really marvellous special effects with such a fine cast that so honours Shakespeare, his language and the craft of acting – breathing, thinking, feeling, speaking – itself the most human of acts, amid the bewildering light show of life, and now of technology too.
That’s what the Tempest is about too, well, if we can ever understand any Brave New World that hath such people in it ; that every generation is waking to the ever repeating Shock of The New, while The Tempest is so much about a total recognition and exposition of a genius’s relationship with his own Art. If it is a ‘Magician’s play’, from a world that still believed in Magic, it is also one in transition from the magical and fantastical to that distinction The Romantics made between fancy and the true power of human imagination, one so superbly mastered by Shakespeare.
Imaginarium’s effects are not always marvellous. The initial Tempest loses the human voices in a storm that is noisy and badly realised, despite the wonderful Jonah’s rib set of a ship’s hull. That humble Boatswain’s cry right at the beginning is precisely because the whole play asks the question ‘who is in charge of the craft’? The political relationships of complex characters on stage are also sometimes a little wooden. Yet what technology and art have done is very remarkable indeed and precisely because the Technology so evokes that ‘isle full of noises’ that is Shakespeare’s mind: The summoning of a terrifying harpie, the lava flows of hell, the encasement of Ariel by Sycorax in the earthy roots of thought, the backdrop that even throws in Van Gogh. Nothing seems unachievable, worthy of Prospero’s power, or Shakespeare’s, so we are delighted to receive the work in its entirety, complete with very perculiar ‘Masque’, with the descent of Juno to bless a consummation, those gorgeous and beautifully done songs “Full fathom five” and “Where the bee sucks” and with wonderfully ephemeral human sprites too giving us several tricks worthy of Darren Brown.
I think it’s partly because of the imaginative effects achieved and realised on stage by Imaginarium then, but especially these particular actors, with their near living Avatars descending from the heavens projected on suitably dreamlike strips of cloth, that suddenly, as if you had popped an LSD pill and welcomed back Timothy Leary, without quite dropping out, Shakespeare’s words take such gigantic flight; the consummation of Shakespeare’s art. Perhaps it’s simply enough to say those actors are inspired to breathe that ever living poetry into being with such a bewildered, delicious, yet also humble grace that somehow tops it all.
Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is tremendous, if lovely Miranda must stop bleeting like a beautiful sheep, (far too much vocal quiver), because Russell Beale is such a committed and multi layered actor, who combines all the intricacies of a loving father, trying to protect and yet let go of his daughter, with an almost petulant wrestling with despair and truth. Who also knows that Prospero’s final appeal, the breaking of his magic staff and drowning of his book, is an act of needed humility that can only truly be about the impotence of art too, yet the call to love and humanity in the real world, and, it must be so obviously said now, the often unreal world of technology too.
I have never seen a production of the Tempest though that has so wonderfully puts Prospero, Ariel and Caliban as total equals on the same stage, as they must be inside Art, Human Consciousness and physical being. Perhaps it would be impossible without the effects, but at last, and precisely because of Imaginarium’s work alongside the RSC’s, Ariel, that held sprite of fancy and fire, explodes into reality, in a performance from Mark Quartely that is utterly visceral and totally memorable. But to pause on Joe Dixon’s Caliban, who so grounds everything and works so wonderfully with the tour de force appearances of Stefano and Trinculo. His ‘monster’ though is tender, real, enslaved and yet delivers the astonishment of Shakespeare’s finest poetry too because, as Auden knew, earth ridden Caliban is the slave and yet poetic force in all of us. That thing of darkness we all acknowledge ours. To be sappy about it he is the most loveable Caliban you’ll ever meet, because he is so solid, so innocent and so bemused.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made of and out little life is rounded by sleep.” Indeed, but wake up and rush to see The Tempest.
David Clement-Davies 2016
David saw The Tempest courtesy of the RSC. The Production photos show Prospero, Ariel, Caliban and Miranda on stage in Stratford and some of the miraculous effects of Imaginarium.