The Tempest - RSC

The Tempest

Royal Shakespeare Company, 2016
Opus Arte, Blu-ray

"I long
To hear the story of your life, which must
Take the ear strangely."

The Tempest is indeed a strange tale. Shakespeare's final play as sole author is acknowledged to be partly a reflection on the craft of the playwright as a creator of worlds and the imagination, but it can also be a disjointed work with difficult language and uncommon themes. Certainly as far as the RSC's 2016 production is concerned, every effort is made to give full expression to the magic of the craft, and it succeeds brilliantly with some innovative technical tools. On the other hand, it doesn't do a lot for the disjointed nature of the play, which never comes together here into any consistent view on the work.

If there's one unique characteristic that defines the RSC production of The Tempest, it's in its use of innovative digital effects created by Intel in association with Imaginarium Studios. There's a risk associated with this, and sometimes you do feel that it distracts from the speeches and supplants any consideration of deeper themes, but more often the technology successfully illustrates the magical qualities of Shakespeare's verse in a way that conventional theatre cannot. And if there's any Shakespeare work that can benefit from a little extra magic, it's this one. The play starts in a spectacular fashion, placing you within the hull of a ship in a storm, the effects and the urgency of the moment feeling charged. Ariel's harpy manifestation and the Iris, Ceres and Juno masque, beautifully set to music and sung live, are also breathtaking in their visual conception.

These might not be what we usually regard as the key scenes of the play, but they are important in establishing the setting of a stage where magic really can take place. The truth of The Tempest is indeed that it is very much related to the art and the magic of theatre and how its component parts - the writing, the poetry, the drama, the setting and the performance - create a kind of alchemy that results in the creation of life. That is indeed something magical. There's perhaps not such a need to digitise Ariel with 3-D modelling, but the live effects - synced to the movements of Mark Quartley - are well realised by Imaginarium, and you do at least have the benefit also of a real person bringing personality to the role.

The performances and the characterisation are also good, filled with personality but also insightful and giving us a deeper understanding of what makes them tick. Jenny Rainsford's Miranda here is socially awkward, which is a convincing way to portray a young woman who has never seen a man, nor even another human being, other than her father. Ariel and Caliban are just as important to establish as polar opposites of the higher nature that man can aspire to and the lower nature of base instincts that he is more commonly drawn towards. It's not enough for them to be just symbols however, they need to have a personality and a human dimension that we can identify with and we see that here in the excellent performances by Mark Quartley and Joe Dixon.

Vital to the overall tone and direction of the play however is in how Prospero is played. Simon Russell Beale is an angry and vengeful Prospero, but one whose rage is largely and deeply internalised, exploding occasionally in the form of magic. Prospero, the surrogate dramatist, is the master of the island and he has power over his creations. He attempts to turn them to his own purposes ("Spirits, which by my art I have from their confines called to enact my present fancies".), but somehow they take on a life and will of their own as they go out into the world. It's a frustrating business and Russell Beale's Prospero comes across as something of a bitter old man, but in his final play Shakespeare himself must have been grappling with such concepts, realising that his works would have a life of their own and reluctantly he would have to be content to let them be.

The performances of these key roles certainly holds the attention and it takes the spectator very well through some of the more difficult and obscure passages when we can understand where the characters are coming from. Other than quite brilliant and entertaining performances by Simon Trinder as a rude and clownish Trinculo and Tony Jayawardena  as Stefano, the drunken sailor, the characterisation of the survivors of the shipwreck from the houses of Milan and Naples is not quite as well-defined or integrated into the whole. These are perhaps not the strongest parts of the play anyway, but they do have a purpose in terms of representing the playwright's desire not just to imagine, but to be able to influence and change society. This is principally led by Gonzalo, whose dreams of a Utopian society are mocked and frustrated by the scheming of the royal court and the base instincts of the others.

It's a noble aspiration to imagine perfection and be able to plant the idea that it might be achievable, and it's what makes The Tempest such a thoughtful, reflective and ambitious final work for a playwright who had insightfully explored so many aspects of human nature and behaviour over his career. If the performance here sometimes feels disjointed and fragmentary, well so too does the play, and if Prospero has to relinquish his dreams, he does so in the recognition that the world belongs to a younger generation and it's theirs to change. What Shakespeare could never have known however is how much Prospero's magic would give and influence succeeding generations, and much the distillation of the magical properties of his formula would still have the alchemical properties to recreate life anew four hundred years later.

The RSC's 2016 performance of The Tempest is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. As with all the RSC releases, the quality of the Live HD broadcast is terrific, and the production is supported by a booklet and several behind-the-scenes extra features. Here the focus is inevitably on bringing the innovative digital effects to the stage, but there is also an interview with Simon Russell Beale and a full-length commentary from director Gregory Doran.

Simon Russell Beale - Prospero
Mark Quartley - Ariel
Jenny Rainsford - Miranda
Joe Dixon - Caliban
Daniel Easton - Ferdinand
Simon Trinder - Trinculo
Tony Jayawardena - Stefano
Joseph Mydell - Gonzalo

Dir: Gregory Doran

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