At the Barbican theatre until Friday 18 August 2017
As Shakespeare’s last play and one of my favourites, I was excited to see The Tempest staged with Intel’s technological genius sparking from the RSC’s magical fingertips. There has often been a parallel drawn between Prospero’s sorcery and Shakespeare’s own wordsmith wizardry, with Prospero’s abandonment of magic as a signal of Shakespeare’s impending departure from the stage. Tangled in the romance of the creativity-fuelled island where The Tempest plays out feels like very suitable territory to try out this fusion of the latest technology with theatrical performance. With such enriching potential to truly immerse audiences in modern day magic it can only be hoped that this is the first of many such collaborations.
This version of The Tempest was first seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon almost 2 years ago. It is directed by Gregory Doran and Simon Russell Beale plays Prospero. The stage is designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis and shows a wrecked ship (or just over half a wrecked ship if you sit in the very reasonably priced restricted view tickets on the left side of the stage, the first few minutes of the first scene the only moments you miss). We all know the magic of the stage is not without its hiccups, and this is endearingly evident in the performance I saw where at the point of Caliban’s (Joe Dixon’s) dramatic emergence on stage the trapdoor refused to open, causing a brief unplanned interval where black t-shirted techies ran on and off stage unable to solve the mystery. The whole thing was treated with laughter and welcome back applause by the patient audience when Caliban instead ran on from the side. Luckily the trapdoor was back up and running for standout scene with the flowery spirit’s ascension, flower projections everywhere in a floral dream of a pre-wedding scene for Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) and Ferdinand (Daniel Easton).Miranda is pleasingly androgynous sweet and comical in her amazed greeting of more men than she has ever seen before at the close of the play, with Ferdinand quickly taking her hand possessively.
The CGI is well-used, particularly in the presentation of Ariel (Mark Quartley) who is conjured on stage both in human form and as a projection, whilst in the shipwreck scene projections show bodies of men slowly sinking into the ocean. I thought it was a visually impressive and effective way of representing Ariel’s ethereal sprite form, giving him more power and stage presence than merely a bodily servant fairy doing Prospero’s bidding, and lending visual clarity to Ariel’s otherworldly association which Prospero communicates with but does not himself embody. This magical representation is reinforced as CGI reappears for the flower adorned fairies.
At the close of the play Ariel and his CGI effect magic are granted freedom and Prospero breaks his staff – he is throughout the traditional storybook picture of a wizard. We are presented with the simple power of Prospero on stage alone, no tricks but words, which after all are the heart and fabric of the play’s true magic.