One of the most exciting trends in theatre this year has been the embrace of ever-more elaborate projection. In Paul Auster’s City of Glass at Lyric Hammersmith time and space shift as one scene bleeds into another, transforming the stage before our eyes. In Robert Lepage’s wonderful 887, a scale model of the tower-block he grew up in changes in an instant to illustrate his disjointed stroll down memory lane. In Ugly Lies the Bone, an American backwater becomes a planetarium filled with constellations, or a snowy Alpine landscape.
The RSC’s production of The Tempest goes even further, employing the technical wizardry of Andy Serkis’ motion capture company Imaginarium Studios to create an avatar of one of the main characters. In doing so, it shows both the potential and the drawbacks of this kind of visual trickery. While the hallucinatory swirls of colour that occasionally engulf the stage are utterly mesmerising, the projection of Ariel’s magical form looks… crap. Like a sprite from a 90s video game. About 1,000 times less impressive than the physical Ariel who walks the stage below.
The play begins, of course, with a storm. And what a storm. The ribbed carcass of a wrecked ship that forms the stage creaks and lurches as thunder and waves crash all around. Sailors dangle from the bows, vainly attempting to deliver lines of dialogue over the din. As the ship is pulled into the inky blackness, projections show the bodies of men sinking limply into the depths.
This sequence sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is packed so full of special effects it has the air of a Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show rather than a production by the world’s most famous theatre company. Caliban’s introduction sees him erupt impressively from the ground; the magical feast includes a disappearing banquet table; one of the musical numbers, featuring dancers in straw boaters, is reminiscent of a Mumford and Sons video, but with opera singers.
The light relief, meanwhile, is spread far too thick, especially Trinculo, who delivers every line with such gleeful lasciviousness that his presence becomes a burden on the production. In contrast, Ferdinand is unutterably dull, a man with such a surfeit of personality he’s even outshone by the CGI Ariel.
The grounding presence, of course, is Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, who is stoic, vengeful but above all else weary. His forgiveness – or rejection – of those who have wronged him is the emotional pinnacle of the play, expertly delivered by an outstanding Shakespearean talent.
But even Simon Russell Beale isn’t enough to pull together all the disparate strands, and his performance, like everything else, is overshadowed by the visual chicanery. By the time Shakespeare’s most quoted lines are delivered, I was ready to curl up in Prospero’s cave and wait until the storm had passed.
First published in City A.M.