The Tempest is in every sense a magical play: wondrous text, a fantastical narrative and a history of productions with every kind of effect from the creaking wood, rope and canvas of the Jacobean masque to the stage illusions of more recent productions.
The current RSC production, transferred from Stratford to the Barbican, is both of its time and timeless. Around a production rich in traditional values of verse-speaking, with period Ruritanian costume and set in the beached hulk of a vast ship, swirls an array of projections and technical effects of a sophistication not seen before on the stage. The Barbican is an ideal venue for a production which is so visually rich, with its excellent sight lines and vast stage.
Gregory Doran’s impressive production has at its centre the Prospero of Simon Russell Beale, an actor who always surprises and can make the vastest of theatres seem intimate, so that each member of the audience feels singled out and spoken to. He is at his best in the closing stages of the play, putting aside his craft and appealing to us to release him. This is another of his performances in major roles that will make it very difficult for anyone to follow him in the same part.
This is a strong cast however, with a good mix of experienced RSC Associate Artists and younger performers making their mark. Among the latter, Daniel Easton is an engaging and amusing Ferdinand, making much of a part that can sometimes seem like a mere cipher. Opposite him, Jenny Rainsford is an effectively youthful Miranda who matures rapidly in the light of the events of the play.
Not all the nobles and mariners can make themselves heard above storm or effects, but the comic roles are well-cast and much funnier than can often be the case. As Trinculo, Simon Trinder strikes an arresting figure, with something of Grimaldi about him, entirely at ease whether investigating the island, emerging from the swamp or stealing an audience member’s drink. Alongside him is the vastly experienced James Hayes as Stephano, cleverly underplaying in the face of the more outlandish postures of his co-conspirator. The audience warmed to these two from the beginning and enjoyed their every appearance.
In addition to the voice and presence of Simon Russell Beale, the other performances to cherish were those of Joe Dixon as Caliban and Mark Quartley as Ariel. Dixon’s Caliban was no oaf but a well-spoken and sad figure, a noble savage brought low by circumstances. This was a performance of great physicality, helped by a clever costume but defined by the way in which the actor inhabited it.
Mark Quartley appeared in multiple guises, for it was around his role as Ariel that much of the technology use revolved. Through sensors he was wearing and multiple projectors, his movements and even facial expressions were recreated in real time on projected apparitions appearing in and around the ever-changing projections that formed part of the set, but he managed to act with these effects rather than being overshadowed by them. Production Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, working with a large team of video and data technicians, has created a world wholly suited to these characters and this story.
Using this technology also enabled the thorny dilemma of the masque to be fairly successfully addressed, with an operatic trio of mythological figures providing a fascinating interlude despite inevitably puzzling a modern audience who were not expecting them. Surely, too, no previous production has been able to so graphically illustrate the “insubstantial pageant faded” as well as explaining, through visual effects, past events such as Ariel being imprisoned in the cloven pine by Sycorax.
The production is advertised as an ideal introduction to Shakespeare for young people and, despite the length, this would seem to be wholly justified. The school parties and families attending seemed enthralled and enjoyed all aspects of the production, with the humour as successful for them as the effects. “Such stuff as dreams are made on,” indeed…