Peter Ormerod reviews The Tempest, presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
“Live theatre reimagined”, they call it. And yet the most striking thing about this production is not the cutting-edge visual effects but wizardry of a more ancient sort: that of a great actor in as total a command of his theatre as Prospero is of his island.
Much of the hype around the show has focused on the RSC’s collaboration with technology firm Intel, which has worked computational marvels to conjure remarkable translucent projections of the spirit Ariel, which dance around the set in accord with the movements of a flesh-and-blood actor. It’s pioneering stuff all right, but it would be pity were that to be what the production is most remembered for. Because, in Simon Russell Beale, this Tempest has a Prospero without peer.
The old man, stranded on a remote island with his daughter Miranda, Ariel and the slave Caliban, wreaks magical revenge on those who put him there: the usurpers who stole from him the dukedom of Milan, whose ship is wrecked in a storm he concocts with his mystical powers. His enemies find themselves on the same island, his daughter falling in love with one of their number, leaving Prospero torn between vengeance and forgiveness.
It is a struggle Beale embodies throughout. His Prospero is at once tender and spiteful, the former accentuating the latter: his rage has a chilling precision, his cruelty to Ariel and Caliban made all the harsher by his evident humanity. He is never more powerful than when he abjures his magic, breaking his staff, drowning his books: he ends the play lit harshly, a flawed human telling us that his aim all along was to please, begging us to set him free by our forgiveness. It’s an ending as heartbreaking as it is inspiring.
Beale lifts the production beyond what might otherwise be a rather frustrating affair. There is sometimes a sense that the lavishness of the production has come at the expense of discipline: impressive as the special effects are in isolation, they appear to lack a coherent visual language, and this bittyness blights the play. Seemingly unencumbered by budgetary limitations, things have a tendency to happen purely because they can, most obviously when three opera-style singers grandly serenade the young lovers; it sounds beautiful but feels somehow dislocated. And it sounds picky to criticise the visual effects, but the astounding sight of Ariel as a vast harpy, terrifying Propero’s opponents, is undermined a little by a lack of synchronisation between voice and mouth.
Beale apart, performances are adequate at best, and pacing is sometimes problematic: the thrills of the tumultuous shipwreck which opens the play are soon dissipated by scenes that drag on a bit, which would be less of a problem were this not the RSC’s supposedly family-friendly Christmas show. And the RSC really needs to rethink its odd belief that regional accents are inherently funny: when they have been heard on its stage this year, they have invariably come from the mouths of comical characters. It’s an issue that the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran, who directs this production, would do well to address.
It says a lot about Beale that his performance outweighs these shortcomings. He does not appear nearly enough in the first half (blame Shakespeare for that), but he dominates the second, sometimes by noise and force, sometimes by silence and passivity; he carries some scenes by presence and expression alone. Don’t go to this for the flashiness and cleverness, but rather to see an actor make magic on a stage using nothing more high-tech than his body. Effects come no more special than that.
* The Tempest runs until January 21. Call 01789 403493 to book.