Friday, 02 December 2016

The Tempest

Simon Russell Beale is the best Prospero our critic has ever seen in the RSC’s high-tech tempest

Written by Ian Shuttlesworth

It’s a bit of a cliché to see reviews or adverts proclaiming, ‘Don’t wait, hurry now to see...’ in the case of the RSC’s latest revival of The Tempest, however, it’s justified. Why, especially when it’s hardly the only Tempest around (I’ll be reviewing another one next week) and even this one will come to London next summer? Well, that’s the thing: I don’t think it’s going to work nearly as well at the Barbican as it does at Stratford. ian

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s deep-thrust stage means the actors are playing to an audience on three sides instead of one: we feel part of the action. and that’s especially valuable when there’s a risk that otherwise the action might be overshadowed by the backgrounds. Me, I think there’s a special circle of hell reserved for stage designers who get over-enthusiastic about computer-generated imagery, so I approached this production not so much with a pinch of salt as a whole packet of Saxa. 

Luckily, director Gregory Doran and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis know better. Having enlisted the help of intel for hardware and imaginarium studios (co-founded by actor Andy Serkis after his work as Gollum and King Kong) for practical know-how, they’ve not only summoned up Prospero’s magic to create vivid backgrounds ranging from a child’s-paintbox landscapes to snarling hellhounds, but they also transform the spirit ariel. Actor Mark Quartley wears a motion- capture bodysuit that maps his movements in real time on to projections of him as a zephyr or a fearsome harpy. Yet he remains on stage the whole time, so that we engage with the ‘real’ ariel and his own thoughts and feelings.

And what a central relationship he has with his master Prospero. Normally a five-star review would imply utter perfection, and this isn’t a flawless production. Pretty much the entire royal family of Naples come from the shallow end of the gene pool, and even the supposedly entrancing Miranda (Jenny Rainsford), when emotional, lets her voice quaver as much as Minnie in The Goon Show. But Prospero... ah, Prospero is Simon Russell Beale.

Beale is unparalleled for turning actorly intelligence into emotional insight, and this pays off in spades in a play which is often thought to be Shakespeare musing upon theatre itself. Prospero’s speeches are invested by SRB with a profound and perfectly balanced sensitivity to the potency of these visions and their ultimate insufficiency in the face of... living. It’s the best Prospero I’ve seen, and I think the best Simon Russell Beale, which is no small accolade. Don’t wait, hurry now to see.

Until 21 January 2017 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon: 01789-403493, 

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