In 1993 I was lucky enough to see Simon Russell Beale, then a sprightly 32-year-old, play Ariel in Sam Mendes’ Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest. Last week, at the RSC in Stratford, we saw the 55-year-old Russell Beale’s Prospero, directed by Gregory Doran. This new staging has been done in collaboration with Intel, and is replete with digital bells and whistles, which might be more familiar to me were I 50 or 60 years younger.
Much of the virtual reality is connected with Mark Quartley’s Ariel. Besides that he sports the ultimate version of the coiffure that my generation called a “duck’s arse,” his lithe figure is captured, reproduced and distorted by the latest digital stage technology. Rather than try to describe or explain these mysteries, let me urge you to find out for yourself when the RSC Tempest comes to your local cinema from 11 January 2017.
The play’s central masque is inspired, and of course benefits hugely from the new technology. James I would not, I think, have been surprised: after all, the original illusionistic hi-tech of his own day, based on Inigo Jones’ study of the then-new science of perspective, was also astonishing. The character of Prospero echoes Dr John Dee, who was both magician and magus. Though our present “magic” does not involve spells, the 17th century theatre and court masque were not dependant upon the occult, so even then illusion was technology-based, and no one concerned in producing it imagined that it involved a spirit world. Their contemporary theatre itself showed that these phantasms and illusions were the result of the application of reason, and demonstrated the truth of atheism, though no one appears to have recognised it. Although the current Tempest is full of tricks and gimmicks, Doran’s genius is that none of them is repeated: everything is fresh and novel – no trap door is used twice.
The casting is also superb. There are no duff actors, and even the minor roles are fully characterised and individuated – yes, even the mariners and spirits. Though Mark Quartley doesn’t seem to have the outstanding tenor voice of Russell Beale’s Ariel, his is mellifluous and pleasant, and the last two of the trio of Iris, Juno and Ceres (Elly Condron, Jennifer Witton and Samantha Hay) are trained singers.
Joseph Mydell is a particularly fine Gonzalo, in a perpetual good humour, which makes his utopian vision (in his Act II, Scene 1 speech beginning, “Had I plantation of this isle. My lord/And were the king on’t, what would I do?”) pleasantly teasing, and justifies its otherwise slightly odd placing in the text. His sunny disposition also contrasts nicely with Prospero’s crotchety moodiness. Joe Dixon’s Caliban is a mighty character, who somehow allows a tiny ray of attractiveness to shine through Stephen Brimson Lewis’ truly repulsive design for his costume and make-up. Tony Jayawardena is allowed to be a touch politically incorrect, playing his terrific Stephano with a slight Indian accent and bhangra movements. As for Russell Beale, every gesture is telling; even when he slouches or fiddles with his hands in his pockets, he’s telling us something important; viz., that Prospero has an uncomplicated human side to him.
Doran takes the play at a steady pace, with no racing or undue acceleration, allowing time for the exposition to develop and the back stories to sink in for anyone seeing The Tempest for the first time. That (and the Disney-cum-Tolkien effects) is why this is an ideal Shakespeare production for children. If only every English-speaking schoolchild could see this, they’d be both made to be civilised, and hooked for life on Shakespeare. Such a cultural programme might even prevent another Donald/Caliban débacle.