The Tempest – RSC – Technological Triumph or Gilding the Lily?

Please don’t think that we have branched out into theatrical or film reviews as a matter of course, but it’s just that there have been a few things that have prompted the odd thought… There will be time enough to talk about the Supreme Court’s decision on prerogative power which will be delivered later this week!

We were lucky to visit the final week of the RSC’s production of The Tempest in January before it moves to London. Reviews in many newspapers have been flattering of a number of aspects including Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. It may just have been the performance we saw, but I  have to confess that I did not feel the gravitas described by some commentators and felt that Beale came across as just a bit camp. The holding of Prospero’s  hand to the head in extreme emotion as Ariel asks “Do you love me, master?” for example, came across as a bit wooden to me and there seemed little that was “breathtaking” overall in the play as others have reported. Miranda (played by Jenny Rainsford) on a few occasions had an irritating warble in her voice, a little like the sound of a sheep.

The new technology employed on this production, further, has been the subject of a great deal of positive comment. Computer-generated images are projected onto gauze on stage, and aided by motion sensors in Ariel’s suit, have an image of him projected about the stage as well as other images, such as of a forest, drowning sailors, or attacking dogs.

The latter two aspects (that were fairly fleeting) did work but the dominance of this technology throughout the play felt at odds with a theatrical production.  The theatre is a wonderful medium that requires “the suspension of disbelief,” as we concentrate on the emotion, the actors, the language and the imagery that is conjured up: the important stuff!  So why would we need to see a projected image of a forest for example? Why do we need to see Ariel in the background moving about but a larger projected computer image also appearing through the wizardry of technology? The underfloor lighting of the beach also gave what I felt to be a brash, harsh, glossy appearance that again I felt was at odds with the outdoor marvels described in this play from 1611. The only slight doubt that I have is whether or not the seat position in the theatre affects the experience of the technology at all, as we were in the upper circle on this occasion.

There was a fair amount of pinching in disbelief by me, however – and rather than of Caliban- as I concluded I had far more enjoyed the performance of The Tempest by  the American Drama Group Europe (directed by Paul Stebbings) in Jersey last July.  It was on a tiny budget with a handful of actors before a small audience at the 13th Century Mont Orgueil Castle that stands majestic above Gorey harbour. There was no impressive technology: simply a small stage in the open air; a passing bit of drizzle before the play started; the sound of the sea with the odd squawk of seagulls and darkening clouds underlit by the fading sun. Nonetheless, we were moved by the emotional connection with the action on stage and understood well Shakespeare’s notion of being on some magical island. The rather eccentric producer, Grantly Marshall, was justifiably in awe of the RSC when I spoke to him in the interval of his production, but I hope that he and his troop may pick up this compliment, that I preferred his honest production that was well acted and wonderfully set at Gorey Castle.

If you want film wizardry, I hope it will be confined to wonders such as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings and that the RSC will stick to what they’re good at: wonderful theatre.