Saturday, 7 January 2017

Such stuff as dreams are made on

Emily, Harriet and Alex conjuring the storm in the RSC's display of Prospero's cell

Indiscriminate audience member?

I sometimes wonder whether I have a very child-like approach to entertainment. It is rare when I don’t enjoy something at the theatre, at the cinema, listening to the radio or watching TV. This sometimes annoys family and friends and I could be accused of having little discrimination. But at the theatre, for example, if the story doesn’t grab me I can imagine the rehearsals and production meetings and work out why the cast and crew have made the decisions they have. In a musical or large-cast production I imagine the director working out how to get everyone on and off slickly and working with lights and sound to create the atmosphere. I always find something to occupy my imagination.
Cast of Greg Doran's production of The Tempest at the RSC; photo credits by RSC website and Topher McGrillis

O Brave New World

In December (and currently still running and about to be broadcast in the cinema) I saw Greg Doran’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is a play I have seen many times before and taught to both younger children and A-Level students since the focus can be on the weird story, the magic, slapstick comedy and amazing spectacle or on power, betrayal, art, love, the illusion of justice, masters/servants, appearance and reality, enslavement by parents and colonists and probably many other themes that are not springing to mind right now. Of course A-Level students still want to know about the magic, comedy and spectacle; and indeed many younger children can see Prospero’s (potentially abusive) treatment of Miranda, Ferdinand, Ariel and Caliban reflected in their own lives on a daily basis. It is a rich play, simple and complex at the same time, knotty and poetic all at once.
The extraordinary Andy Serkis as Iago, Monsieur Rigaud and his Performance Capture work. Mark Quartley rehearsing Ariel in the centre.

In collaboration with Intel

For the first time, as far as I know, a theatre director worked with Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium Studios. This Performance Caputre studio was founded as a result of Andy’s expertise creating cinematic characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong in Peter Jackson’s film and Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes films. With technology provided by Intel, the RSC production of The Tempest is indeed a visual treat, not only with the sight of Ariel growing, flying, swimming and concocting the illusions that frighten the shipwrecked characters, but also with beautiful artistic film and video by Finn Ross and lighting by Simon Spencer. Every production department works together in an example of total theatre. Greg Doran believes the effect might be similar to the original audience’s experience of the masque within the play, a convention that pushed the Jacobean theatre to its limits and, of course, pleased the theatre-loving James I.
Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale in the RSC's The Tempest

These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits

In the midst of all the technology, though, the characters emerged strongly:
  • Simon Russell Beale was at times a frightening and neurotic Prospero whose performance captured Prospero’s sad grandeur, his complex feelings of love and feelings of terrible guilt at his past actions. As always with this actor he commanded the stage in a sympathetic and winning way, able somehow to draw you in to his thought process with gesture, facial expression, volume, inflection, pitch and pause
  • Mark Quartley was a muscular and dangerous Ariel with a face of profound concentration and compassion
  • I thought Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda was spunkier than usual with more than a hint of rebellion and a sense that she would rule both Daniel Easton’s gentle Ferdinand and the kingdom with more force than her father ever could
  • Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder made welcome returns to the RSC with bold performances as Stephano and Trinculo, the former a bully and the latter a bit sly, both of course very funny, stupidly drunk and clearly the best of friends
  • Joe Dixon, one of my favourite actors, was an imposing, poignant and at once both aggressive and charming Caliban, a performance that allowed every thematic complication of the character to be palpable
  • The “court” characters were also clearly and strikingly played: a grief-enraged Alonso by James Tucker, Oscar Pearce’s deliciously evil Antonio, a dimwit Sebastian by Tom Turner and a more-knowing-than-usual Gonzalo by the gorgeous Joseph Mydell 
  • All the courtiers, mariners and spirits operated fluently and fluidly to suggest this was indeed a busily inhabited island, even if most of the inhabitants were in the imagination.
Stephen Brimson Lewis has designed this production and, in my view, is building up a legacy as one of the greatest theatre designers in history following his body of work, both for the RSC and elsewhere.
Simon Russell Beale in a performance of great power and variety