Carla van der Sluijs shares her opinions on the RSC’s ground-breaking production of The Tempest.


 

In ‘The Tempest’, Shakespeare speaks of a ‘brave new world,’ and the RSC’s production evokes just that. Created in collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, their new version marks the first use of live motion capture technology in classical theatre. While Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, gives his monologues, an avatar of him is projected on to a backdrop thanks to a suit of motion sensors he wears under his costume. The technology is so advanced that it can even capture his facial expressions. The Imaginarium Studios describe their work as ‘cyber-thespianism’ and the extensive list of films they have created graphics for includes ‘King Kong’ and ‘Lord of The Rings.’

RSC’s ‘The Tempest’ has generally been met with positive reviews, particularly after its live screening into cinemas across the country. The production has been described as awe-inspiring and a fascinating merger between the two worlds of art and science. However, there has been criticism against this kind of technology worming its way into theatre. ‘The Stage’ even went as far as to describe the production as ‘gimmicky’ and to argue that it did not reach ‘the heart of the play.’ However, these criticisms show a true lack of understanding not only with regards to this production, but also to Shakespeare’s intentions behind his script.

‘The Tempest’ is one of the bard’s trickier works. It is rarely a favourite among thespians, simply because it lacks the psychological depth of character and beauty of language that is present amongst his other plays. However, literary critics are convinced it was intended for performance at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre so Shakespeare could experiment with stage effects, which were a known interest of his. It is likely that he cast aside attempts to make the narrative more complex so he could focus his efforts into creating a spectacle of sorcery that would wow audiences. Today, in this age of science and innovation, technology is our kind of magic. In my opinion, the RSC could have stumbled upon no better way of bringing Shakespeare’s aims of ‘The Tempest’ to a 21st-century audience: by inducing the same feelings of awe and bewitchment that would have intrigued Jacobean play-goers.

The real genius behind the RSC’s production comes in how cleverly it balances the two aspects of art and technology on stage in a kind of artistic equilibrium. This is largely thanks to such strong performances from the main characters. Jenny Rainsford convincingly captures Miranda’s youth as she charges across the stage in passions of teenage rebellion. Simon Russell Beale as Prospero holds masterful control of the great stage presence demanded by his role. This makes it all the more touching and emotive when Prospero finally sees the error of his ways and looks to forgiveness. Simon Trinder as Trinculo and Tony Jayawardena as Stephano play hilariously off each other and had the audience in fits of laughter with their antics. Ultimately, the technology blends itself seamlessly into the stage and thus becomes a backdrop to the talent upon it.

This production was not only outstanding, it was valuable. Thanks to ‘cyber-thespianism,’ RSC have proved what is now possible in live theatre, and the results are extraordinary.

 

Carla van der Sluijs