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REVIEW: The Tempest at the RSC — a Christmas cracker

Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel
Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel

Four hundred years on from Shakespeare’s death, director Greg Doran has tapped into the dramatist’s spirit of technical creativity and adventure to create this dazzling, multilayered, spectacular and fabulous production of The Tempest, which is being touted as the RSC’s festive family show.

There’s been much ballyhoo about the technical trickery being used in this production. Tech giant Intel and the Imaginarium Studio – the whizzes behind such digitally-aided screen creations as Gollum – have both been involved to create this cutting-edge theatrical display.

Some critics have been churlish about the results (“mere gimmick” damns the review in The Stage), but this mum-of-three begs to differ.

I usually have to coax my pre-teen and teen kids to give Shakespeare a chance, but this has genuine multigenerational appeal, and I know they will be truly wowed by it when the whole family sees it during Christmas week.

The Tempest is of course a great story for a generation reared on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Set on a magical island, it features relatable teen, Miranda, and her wizard dad, Prospero, who is seeking revenge against his enemies. He creates a storm to shipwreck his brother, Antonio (who banished him and stole the title of the Duke of Milan from him), the King of Naples and his brother, Sebastian.

Thanks to the inspired design from Stephen Brimson Lewis, and the digital dudes, it looks simply epic. The action happens within the belly of a large rotting ship carcass; while the stage floor, back wall and large rotund projection screens hanging pendulously from the ceiling, all serve to convey lighting effects and digital images that are simply mind-blowing to behold. The shipwrecking tempest and psychedelic other-worldly landscapes are conveyed with such colour, sound and depth it feels as if you are sitting in a magical diorama.

And what if you want a terrifying 60ft-tall harpy to descend menacingly on to your enemies? That’s no problem with this new box of tricks. Star of the show is Ariel, played by actor Mark Quartley. He is simply mesmerising as Prospero's sprite as he performs the illusions and deceptions his master demands he enacts to trap his enemies. As the impressively lithe actor contorts and weaves onstage, the avatars generated by his motion capture suit flit beguilingly around the theatre’s myriad surfaces – from the aforementioned monster to a burning demi-god and more.

The famous masque scene, where Prospero creates a grand pageant to celebrate the engagement of Miranda to the shipwrecked Ferdinand, the king’s son, is extraordinarily splendid. Opera singers Samantha Hay and Jennifer Witton, as conjured goddesses Ceres and Juno, dazzle in voice and elaborate costume (including a 20ft-tall skirt – itself a projection screen); and the accompanying Mozart-inspired score by Paul Englishby is immense. When the arrival of the ‘peacock-drawn carriage’ sees seemingly the whole theatre erupt in an ostentatious display of bluey-green feathers, more brain cells implode with the sheer wonder of it all. It really does bring big screen pyrotechnics to the theatre stage in the most blindingly innovative fashion.

Old-school theatre fans have found much to praise in Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Prospero – rejoicing that he has returned to the RSC stage after a 22-year absence and full of admiration for the emotional gravitas he lends. His performance, more grumpy dad than all-powerful master of dark arts, is indeed nuanced and understated; which is probably a polite way of saying I found him a bit boring at times.

Stellar turns abound in this classy show, however. Jenny Rainsford as the spirited and slightly gauche Miranda, and Danny Easton, charming as her suitor Ferdinand, give the tale a happy spring. While the comic subplot – courtesy of Tony Jayawardena’s brilliantly drunken butler Stephano, Joe Dixon’s gross but pitiable monster Caliban, and Simon Trinder’s creepy vaudevillian jester Trinculo – are dynamic zany fun.

If you enjoy one Christmas cracker this year, make it this one.

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