The Tempest review: Human bodies shine through Intel and the RSC’s hi-tech spectacle
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s collaboration with technology giant Intel has dominated much of the attention surrounding this new production of The Tempest. So much so, that the two companies are given equal footing on the programme, alongside performance-capture company Imaginarium Studios. Yet for all the puffed-up, digital wizardry on show, it is the human moments of deflation, exhaustion and forgiveness that truly resound.
The technological contribution mostly orbits Mark Quartley’s Ariel, a spirit that flits between forms to guide, mislead and occasionally terrify the island’s shipwrecked inhabitants. With the help of real-time motion capture and avatars projected onto smoky tubes lowered from the rafters, these transformations are interpreted literally. We are told Prospero found Ariel trapped in a cloven pine, for example, and lo-and-behold a tree-like avatar is writ large above the heads of the actors.
There is a clear justification for this approach to the character, described as he is through Shakespeare’s text as a shape shifting, ethereal being. Indeed, the use of digital technology chimes with the play’s overall theme of illusion, and the falsity of those illusions. But instead of leaning into these very potent ideas of technology – foregrounding the digital as a theme that rings true with Prospero’s talk of “baseless fabric” – these novel techniques are framed as little more than tools for spectacle.
The RSC puts this approach in the context of Stuart masques. These were lavish extravaganzas, stemming from the court entertainment of King James I, which would use experimental (candle) lighting, mechanical apparatus and elaborate costumes to deliver “illusionistic” spectacles. Real-time motion capture and floating digital avatars are here pitched as successors, and so the emphasis is on creating an opulent piece of theatre magic. You are not supposed to see the strings, as it were.
This is fine, in theory. But it isn’t entirely successful, for one simple reason: the modern audience is much more inured to digital technology, and has had far more experience with touching, controlling and manipulating digital visuals, than a Stuart audience would have with the tools used to create the effects of a masque. In theory, an enormous, fiery, real-time projection of an actor should knock our socks off; in reality it taps into our already-brimming grammar of CGI, of computer interfaces, of video games, and it ultimately falls a little short.
The most effective and intelligent use of digital technology in the play centres around the masque scene, where Prospero conjures up a lavish play-within-a-play to delight his daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law. The scene itself is a garish wash of fields and flowers. It may have been intended to be spectacular, but it comes across as excessive and gauche – like a particularly ostentatious screensaver – complete with Opera-singing goddesses and dancing, charmingly pastoral sprites.
Chastising himself for wasting time with such an “insubstantial pageant”, the stage becomes a void.
The flip, then, when Prospero pulls the plug, is a powerful gut-punch. Chastising himself for wasting time with such an “insubstantial pageant”, the stage becomes a void, the lights gone, the actors all frozen. We are shown, if only for a moment, the empty computer screen, and are left with Prospero’s sorrow and self-reproach.
While this review is angled towards the play’s use of technology, to talk about these things separate from Simon Russell Beale’s masterful performance misses a crucial tension. More scientist than magician, Beale’s unassuming physicality is coupled with an unpredictable inner anxiety. When he isn’t gripping his staff he stuffs his hands in his pockets, pointed and uneasy with his own daughter, as he is with his moral standing in the latter stages of the play. Yet he seems distanced from his own powers – embodied through the hi-tech spectacle – as if unconvinced by the illusory projections that seem to captivate other characters.
In many ways I wished the RSC had gone further in this direction, foregrounding the glitchy, abject falseness of the digital avatars, as opposed to treating them like convincing fantasies. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set, built of a rotting ship hull, is brilliantly evocative, but it would have been interesting to see such a tangible design clash against something explicitly contemporary and screen-based. Ultimately, though, that is a different production — one that wants to look at technology as a theme rather than a tool. What I took away from this production of The Tempest isn’t the illusion, but what remains when the illusion is switched off, and you’re left facing the bodies who betrayed you, having to decide between revenge or forgiveness.