The Tempest

Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Mark Quartley (Ariel) and Simon Russell Beale (Prospero) Credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Simon Russell Beale (Prospero) looks up at the imprisoned Ariel Credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
No funny business, Simon Russell Beale (Prospero) tells Jenny Rainsford (Miranda) and Daniel Easton (Ferdinand) Credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

It was nearly 20 years ago that the Royal Shakespeare Company broke tradition and started presenting ‘family shows’ before Christmas. Was this really what the RSC was for? I wondered at the time. In fact there followed a succession of brilliant hits like Matilda that have wowed young and old across the world.

Now artistic director Greg Doran has taken an even bolder step—staging a family production of The Tempest. So can the company have the best of both worlds, a Shakespeare spectacular? Absolutely Yes. For this is a truly magical production, although not for the reason most prominently displayed on the tin.

Much has been made of the show’s use of interactive effects. “Enter Ariel, invisible” Shakespeare instructs, and sensors pick up Mark Quartley’s movements to project a holographic image of the spirit within a light tube. It is part of a “visionary performance that we hope will forever change the live theatre experience,” writes Penny Baldwin, vice president, general manager, global brand, partner and new technology marketing of sponsor Intel.

Forever? Well, you don’t get a job title like that by doing same-old, but unfortunately this ‘live performance capture’ is the least successful aspect of the show. The image is unlikely to impress the computer game generation, and it becomes a huge distraction for anyone trying to follow the words, especially as its lips do not move. What a liberating relief when the actor himself appeared.

The trick works better during Ariel’s silent imprisonment in a pine tree, but it is the more established technique of video projection by Finn Ross and Simon Spencer’s lighting that really enhance Stephen Brimson Lewis’s brilliant design, from the opening storm and visions of drowning sailors to the beautiful, rolling landscapes created for Miranda and Ferdinand’s betrothal masque.

It feels like Shakespeare Lite at times, but Doran’s always penetrating insight nevertheless finds new things to say about the relationship of the three central characters. Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, having stoked his resentment and anger for 12 years, is nervy and petulant as his moment of retribution approaches at last; Ariel retreats forlornly when freed from his loving dependence; and Joe Dixon’s haka-dancing Caliban achieves something approaching dignity in his lament, “when I waked, I cried to dream again.”

Daniel Easton as the fresh-faced Ferdinand and Jenny’s Rainsford as Miranda were the perfect young lovers, she rather wistful about his rather too ready pledge to observe pre-marital abstinence.

A large group of junior school pupils near me sat transfixed throughout, not so much I suspect by the light show, as by the awesome set, inside the great hold of a ship, the fantastic costumes with coral-encrusted nymphs, and good old stagecraft and cajolery, notably that between Simon Trinder’s trademark northern comic turn as Trinculo and Tony Jayawarena’s drunken butler Stephano.

Call me old-fashioned.

The show is broadcast live to cinemas on 11 January and will run at the Barbican, London from 30 June to 18 August 2017.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

Are you sure?