With Simon Russell Beale in the lead role, the Royal Shakespeare Company have partnered with Intel and Imaginarium to present an innovative new production of The Tempest. You can see it at select cinemas this month.
The spectacular opening sequence – Prospero summoning a tempest to wreck his brother Antonio’s ship – establishes Gregory Doran’s thematic focus: Prospero’s obsessive pursuit of retribution. As the curtain opens, the ship is all but wrecked already: sailors are tossed around within its broken, splintered interior until a rousing music score sweeps them under the waves. In this first scene, all the elements of production unify to create an audio-visual maelstrom that sweeps us towards the play’s heart: Prospero’s decisive confrontation with his past.
Doran’s direction quickly unearths the dubious ethics behind Prospero’s plans. The production takes place entirely within the ship’s wrecked carcass, a constant reminder that – however much we sympathise with Prospero’s situation – he is perfectly capable of inflicting at least as much pain as was inflicted on him. A chillingly eerie piano tune ushers in Mark Quartley’s Ariel, the ethereal spirit floating high above Prospero in the form of a mystical, translucent digital avatar, free of physical boundaries and also seemingly those of time and space. But this wondrous expression of freedom is quickly shattered. In a technological feat just as impressive, the spirit is corralled down to earth, where Prospero encases him in an impenetrable column of winding tree branches – Ariel himself painfully morphs into an unbending trunk. The spirit – representative of freedom – is rendered totally subservient to Prospero.
Many productions of The Tempest have pursued a colonial interpretation, seeing Prospero’s ethically dubious presence on the island as representative of certain colonisation missions. (Some of the most iconic of these have been Australian.) For the most part, the Royal Shakespeare Company puts that conversation to the side, choosing instead to focus on Prospero’s tortured relationship with the Milanese who left him on the island.
While this interpretative decision enhanced my appreciation for Prospero, I think Caliban and Miranda suffer because of it. Joe Dixon brings a lumbering physicality to Caliban that’s evocative to watch, but the character ultimately feels underdeveloped and underutilised. With all the technological enhancements used for Prospero and Ariel, I was hoping for a more innovative Caliban. This Caliban feels reductive, an impression that is only reinforced by his blundering Neanderthal-esque costume design. It feels like a missed opportunity – after all, the character has as much magic in his life as Prospero or Ariel. The same can be true of Miranda: Jenny Rainsford fires on all cylinders from a performance standpoint, but even her most dramatically charged scenes seem to fall flat from a design perspective – while Ariel and Prospero’s interactions pulse with technological revolution, Miranda’s and Caliban’s scenes play with a sort of passive realism that cannot help but pale in comparison.
It feels as if the creative team’s heart is with Prospero and Ariel, and, as impressive as their scenes are, it sets a precedent that necessarily fluctuates, and the by-product is a sometimes awkward tonal imbalance. Technology like this suppresses or liberates an experience, and in this production, I think it does both.
Intel and Imaginarium’s technology is definitely a sight to behold, and this production hits its straps by bringing the visual grandeur of The Tempest to life.
Then again, in the last few moments of this production, the cast scatters, and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero is left alone on the stage. Intel and Imaginarium’s technical achievements provided me with many thrilling moments, but none so much as this, a spotlight rising on a legendary actor delivering some pretty impressive words.