Review: 'The Tempest' from the Royal Shakespeare Company – A Brave New World for Theatre

Ben Huxley

OnStage United Kingdom Critic

Perhaps to compensate us for our absence at the theatre, we who attend live theatre screenings at the cinema are treated to extras in the interval; not unlike those DVD bonus features we used to get so excited about. With the RSC’s The Tempest, broadcasted on the 11th January from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, there was a featurette titled “Becoming Ariel” – in which actor Mark Quartley discussed his role as Prospero’s handy little spirit. As well as talking about the usual challenges of undertaking a large role, Quartley gave us an insight into the technology used in this production. Within his Ariel costume was motion-capture technology, courtesy of Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium Studios.

During the performance, he wasn’t only physically on stage, but also an impressive CGI spirit, gliding from screen to screen above and around the stage. The Tempest was of the masque tradition, so in 1611 the era’s top special effects would have been used to aid the magical elements of the story. Quartley believes Shakespeare would have been pleased with this performance – and I agree with him. 

The play opens with its eponymous tempest – the illusion of a storm, created by Ariel, that brings King Alonso’s ship to the island. The lighting was used perfectly here; in an almost disorientating way it seemed as if the stage were shaking. And the effects didn’t calm down; they only got more impressive. When Ariel later explains to Prospero how he bought the ship in, we saw him act it out in a CGI flashback – it was reminiscent of Ben Wishaw’s Ariel in the underrated 2010 Julie Taymor film. The scene with Iris, Juno, Ceres and the nymphs towards the end of the performance was accompanied by some of the most psychedelic visuals I’ve seen on stage: colourful moving hills, leaking from the screen to the stage. It moved seamlessly from this into a what I can only describe as a folk dance, accompanied by music with a Celtic twang. 

The music itself is one of the most important aspects of The Tempest: Not only is it a vehicle for Prospero’s magic, but a representation of the otherworldliness of the island. Nobody from the ship seems to understand what they’re hearing. As Ferdinand says – “Where should this music be? I’th air, or th’ earth? / It sounds no more, and sure it waits upon / Some god o’ th’ island.” In this performance, the song Ariel goes on to sing – “full fathom five…” – was the best I’ve heard. It was slow, melancholy, and perfectly brought out the sadness of the lyrics. 

Quartley’s performance as Ariel was flawless. He played him as loyal, not bitter (unlike Beale’s notorious Ariel in 1993). Trinculo and Stephano, played by Simon Trinder and Tony Jayawardena respectively, were loved by the crowd – Trinder sat on the knee of some poor bloke in the front row. Joe Dixon played a doe-eyed Caliban, whose grief at the death of a butterfly was reminiscent of Lenny Small. His costume was impressive too – giving him the deformed sub-human look of something out of Tolkien. 

There wasn’t a weak link, but the show-stealer was Jenny Rainsford’s rebellious Miranda. In her first scene with Prospero, the line “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness” was spoken almost sarcastically – which makes sense; it’s an arduous bit of exposition. In her budding relationship with Fernando she, literally and figuratively, wears the trousers – lifting with ease the log he’s been struggling to drag, and standing indifferently with her hands in her pockets as he begs for her love. It was a breath of fresh air to see Miranda, not as naïve and submissive, but as a plucky teenager sick of following orders. 

Simon Russell Beale, who’s returned to the RSC after over 20 years away, was a solemn Prospero; sad to see his daughter go, and reluctant to forgive those who betrayed him. For his final speech, directed at the audience, he was under a spotlight with the rest of the stage in darkness. This was refreshingly basic after two hours of spectacular effects – and one of the most powerful scenes. The magic is over – his “charms are all o’erthrown”. We’re left only with a few words from Prospero before he, and Shakespeare himself, retires. What a way to bring closure to the 400th anniversary year.