Theater Review: The Tempest, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Tempest has never been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I find its multiple plot threads confusing, and the long info-dump in the second scene, right after the wreck of the ship containing the King of Naples and Prospero’s brother, gets the play off to an odd start. There’s way too much exposition in the beginning of the play, with backstories of Ariel and Caliban, and it takes to long to get moving. Beyond that, the plot isn’t that interesting. There’s a pretend marriage (with the prospect of an actual marriage to come), a pair of brothers who find each other after a dozen years, and the “happy” ending of Prospero once again becoming the Duke of Milan.

Nevertheless, it’s a perennial crowd-pleaser, perhaps because, unlike the tragedies, it’s not a heavy play; kids can enjoy it, if the magic is foregrounded enough. In the current Royal Shakespeare Production, the magic is more than foregrounded; it’s the main selling point for the play. The RSC has worked with Intel and with Imaginarium, the company founded by Andy Serkis (Gollum, in the Lord of the Rings), to bring motion capture technology to many domains. (You can learn more about the technology used in this production here.)

But even without all this digital derring-do, this production would be notable, as it features Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, in his first performance at the RSC in more than twenty years.

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(Photos by Topher McGrillis for The RSC.)

To begin, the photo above of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel shows the intricate stage set, designed to look like the broken hull of Prospero’s ship, which crashed a dozen years earlier, stranding him on the island. In three and a half years seeing plays at the RSC, this is by far the most imposing set I’ve seen. Behind it is a large, curved screen, onto which images are projected, and above the stage is the Vortex, a spiral of mosquito netting that descends on the stage at times so images and Ariel’s avatar can be projected on it.

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Above is the scene where Prospero is explaining how he released Ariel after the witch Sycorax had trapped him in a tree. We see the tree slowly imprison Ariel, then release him. As you can see in this photo, projections are not just on the Vortex, but also on the stage, the ship’s hull, and the rear screen. At a few moments in the play, these projects are almost overwhelming in their intricacy, and their beauty. The effects create an enveloping experience, if you’re sitting in the right location. (More on that below.)

The play is not all digital wizardry; in fact, it’s the acting that makes this an excellent production. Not just Beale, who is a force of nature as Prospero, but many of the supporting actors bring this production alive.

One of the sub-plots involves the people whose ship wrecked in the first scene. These kings and dukes, dressed and acting like they stepped out of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical, are probably the least interesting part of the play. Their role is simply to facilitate Prospero’s eventual return to his dukedom, and I found these sections to be a bit of a slog. In the very first scene, where they are all on stage swaying, pretending to be on the deck of their ship in the storm that Prospero conjured up, the noise of the storm was such that I heard only a few words of what they said, and in later scenes, they mostly seem to stand around jawing.

Another sub-plot follows Caliban with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards who escaped from the shipwreck, well laden with sack. Caliban takes Stephano for a god, and together they plot a coup against Prospero. The scenes with these characters are among the most enjoyable. Tony Jayawardena, with his Indian accent, and Simon Trinder, with his clown make-up and little tooting horn, provide some perfectly timed slapstick comedy, which delighted the many young people in the audience. (Last night’s production had several school groups in attendance.) At one point, he even hops into the audience to sit one one spectator’s lap. Shortly after the intermission, the person next to the unwitting cushion hadn’t finished their ice cream, so Trinculo takes it and starts eating it; this brought a great deal of laughter from the audience. Caliban, played by Joe Dixon in a suit that made him look like a true monster, had the perfect balance of naiveté and pathos for this role, and, while he doesn’t have many great lines, his one long speech is beautiful:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

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The other sub-plot is about Miranda and Ferdinand, one of the escapees of the shipwreck, who Miranda immediately falls in love with.

Is the third man that e’er I saw, the first
That e’er I sigh’d for…

As often in Shakespeare’s comedies, these two young lovers will eventually be united, but they face few obstacles to their love, and I was relatively unconvinced by Daniel Easton’s performance as Ferdinand. Jenny Rainsford as Miranda was fine, but I never felt any convincing emotion from her performance. At times she was a bit over the top, at times a bit withdrawn, but she, the one who is discovering a “brave new world that has such people in it” doesn’t seem that amazed by it all.

One of the oddities of this production is contrast between the sumptuous images of some scenes and the stark simplicity of others. In a way, these can be seen as magic versus reality, with the magic being excessive, and the reality being as stark as a Beckettian landscape. And perhaps that’s the point of the production. The best example of this is lovely wedding masque in Act 4, where three spirits, Iris, Ceres, and Juno, perform a song with bright colors projected on the stage and the rear screen, with dancing and happiness, when, suddenly, Prospero ceases their revel, and the stage becomes dark, colorless, lifeless. The sharp contrast between those two is almost breathtaking, and is a powerful moment of theater.

This production has an intermission after about an hour and a half; the second part is just under an hour. I felt that the first part dragged on a bit – it had the Pirates of Penzance and their rambling discussions – but the second part was a lot more vibrant. It featured the masque, which gives the play a joyous tone, even though it’s cut short, and Prospero is on stage much more in the later scenes. In the end, when Prospero speaks the epilogue, it all comes together. This is, indeed, Prospero’s play, and theater-goers fortunate to see this performance by Simon Russell Beale will not be disappointed.

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I thought of writing two different reviews of this play, because, while I saw it last night from the third row in front of the stage, I also saw an early preview, from a seat on the side of the stage, near the back. From that vantage point, I saw pretty much none of the special effects. I could not see the projections on the Vortex, as they are mainly visible from the front, I couldn’t see the rear screen at all, because it’s far to the back of the stage, and I couldn’t even see all of the stage, because my view was blocked by one of the ribs of the ship’s hull. There’s a real problem with seating for this production, and many people I have discussed this with have been disappointed by how little they could see from their seats. And these tickets are not marked “Restricted view,” as is the case with certain seats in the theater that are adjacent to beams or in other locations.

As you can see in the first two photos above, the stage set is built sort of like a funnel. It comes out to the sides of the stage, and if you’re sitting on the side – the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a thrust stage – you may not see many or most of the effects. I’m not sure where the lines of sight are sufficient, but if you’re in front of the stage, you’ll see everything; on the sides, it depends on how far toward the back of the stage you are. You’re better off sitting on stage left, because of the angle of the two parts of the ship’s hull used as the set allow you to see the rear screen more easily.

A number of people have also pointed out that sitting in the stalls means you cannot see the projections on the stage. I was in the third row, and I saw them fairly well, but it does seem like the ideal location to see this production is in the circle, the first level up, near the center. In fact, given the problems with sight-lines, the best way to see this play may be when it is broadcast to cinemas on January 11, or when it is released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s a shame to attend such a performance and not see everything, and this is the first time I’ve seen a production at the RSC when this is a problem. I’ve sat in similar locations at the side of the stage before, and never missed anything. It’s worth noting that the play is transferring to the Barbican in London, and that having a proscenium arch stage should eliminate many of the problems of lines of sight.

(For an interesting perspective on how seating can affect one’s impression of this production, see two reviews by The Bard of Tysoe: bad seat and good seat.

As for the electronic wizardry, it is spectacular at times – see the photos above – but it doesn’t seem essential. Mark Quarterly, playing Ariel, is sometimes on stage, but invisible to the characters (“Go make thyself like a nymph o’ the sea: be subject, To no sight but thine and mine, invisible”) When he performs the bits that are projected on the screens, the audience can still see him, and I think this is a mistake. His avatar’s movements lag behind his actual movements, and all this does is distract the audience from the avatar, which is what the characters see. I suspect this is done so it’s clear that the motion capture is live, not recorded, but it just confuses things. If an audience can suspend disbelief at the theater, they don’t need to have visual proof of how the digital magic is made. In addition, there are a few bits where a smaller Vortex moves across the stage with the avatar project on it, and the projections didn’t quite follow the column of mosquito netting. If this can’t be perfect, it’s not worth doing.

I started this review saying that The Tempest is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. This production tries to be many things, and, in the end, is satisfying, even jubilant at times. But it’s not the gimmickry that saves it, it’s Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero that makes this worth seeing. I look forward to seeing it again in January, in good seats. In fact, my seat is the exact one where Trinculo hopped into the audience, so at least I’ll be prepared…

To sum up: see this production for Simon Russell Beale, see it for the novelty of the effects, but see it from the right place in the theater, if you can get a ticket. (The Stratford run seems to be almost entirely sold out.)

One final note. The British people are parsimonious about standing ovations, but Mr. Beale received one from many audience members last night. This is the first time I’ve seen this at the RSC.