The latest Shakespeare production at the RSC in Stratford is The Tempest, famed mainly for bringing Simon Russell Beale back to the company after a long hiatus. He plays Prospero, the former Duke of Milan exiled to an island where he has focused on studying, practising magic and bringing up his daughter Miranda. When a ship arrives nearby, fortuitously containing Prospero’s brother (who usurped him) and the King of Naples (who helped), the lonely exile conjures up a storm that sets into motion a whole train of events.
A bare stage, cracked and inlaid with mirrors, gives the impression of parched desert sands while the remains of a ship on either side evoke the wreck that has landed the party on the island. This production has attracted attention for its use of cutting-edge motion capture technology, and I found this to be effective as well as more sparingly used than I had imagined – I’m sure that the original plan was for Ariel to be completely motion captured but I feel the play was more effective with a more sparing use of the technology. It is at its most effective during the masque scene, with some breathtaking effects that have the same effect on the audience that the contemporary effects must have had on the original audience back in the early seventeenth century.
As Prospero, Simon Russell Beale is the undoubted start of the show, conveying his character’s anger and bitterness at the loss of his dukedom in a way greatly removed from the more resigned and benign Prosperos I’ve seen in the past. Gregory Doran’s production brings out the humour in the text, not just in the comedy scenes but in the touching father-daughter relationship between Prospero and Miranda (Jenny Rainsford). There are good performances too from Daniel Easton as Ferdinand, Joe Dixon as Caliban and Mark Quartley as Ariel, who in many ways has the toughest job having to cope with a motion capture suit but also manages to convey real depth to his character, hovering around Prospero after having been granted his freedom in a way that suggests he would rather not leave at all.
This production has been billed as the RSC’s family show for the winter of 2016/17, but while I’m not convinced it will have the same broad appeal as Wendy and Peter Pan, it’s well worth seeing.