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Review: Taking the use of technology on stage to the next level in the RSC's The Tempest, Barbican Theatre

The Tempest production photos_ 2017_ Barbican Theatre_2017_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_222722
The Tempest, Barbican Theatre. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The opening storm in the RSC's The Tempest at the Barbican is probably the most spectacular I've seen. The stage is set like the inside carcass of a ship, there is lightning and thunder effects as you'd expect but there are also projections which make the hull look like it is rolling with the waves.

You can't actually hear what any of the actors are saying above the din, which is problematic (if you know the play, then less so) and it sums up neatly this production: high on spectacle and effects but not everything quite works.

Of course it is the motion capture performance of Ariel (Mark Quartley) which is making headlines. On paper having a CGI of a character which is a spirit, that can take on different forms and float is a superb idea. It is a device that is used for particularly scenes, the rest of the time Mark Quartley performs more traditionally, his costume discreetly hiding the gizmos required for the motion capture.

It is quite spectacular to see the CGI Ariel hovering above the stage and encased in a tree when his history is recalled by Prospero (Simon Russell Beale) but the technology isn't quite up to speed and there is a slight delay between the actors movements and what the CGI character does which was a bit distracting and I found myself watching Mark Quartley more than the image. The problem is most acute when Ariel takes on the form of a harpy, he wears a special headset which is supposed to capture the movement of his face as he speaks but the delay is such that it just looks oddly out of sink like a DVD where the movement and sound don't quite match up.

The Tempest production photos_ 2017_ Barbican Theatre_2017_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_222921
Mark Quartley as Ariel, The Tempest, Barbican. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The technology will no doubt improve, these problems will be ironed out and from that point of view it is exciting to think about the possibilities for future live performance. But, well done for the RSC for giving it a go and opening up that door.

There is some visually stunning and really effective use of lighting and projections in this production. In fact, it is the first Tempest I've seen that has really felt like it was set on a magical island of spirits and monsters.

What is also good to see is that the little details aren't forgotten or lost amidst the bigger effects. It is a production of nice little touches and where favourite characters like Caliban (Joe Dixon) and Trinculo the Jester (Simon Trinder) are as good as you want them to be. Simon Trinder's Trinculo is particularly enjoyable, unashamedly a clown complete with white and black make up, tufty hair and old fashioned car horn as if he has been lifted straight from the circus.

Simon Russell Beale's Prospero has a nice fatherly warmth towards Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) which is something that is often missing in productions of The Tempest but Miranda herself didn't work for me. I've said it before: she's a difficult character to pull off. She needs to have the innocence of someone who has grown up on an island with only her father and Caliban for company but not so childlike that you don't believe that the more metropolitan Prince Ferdinand wouldn't fall for her. Here Jenny Rainsford is just a little too mature ("harsh" was how @polyg described her) and her final lines landed with a faint hint of sarcasm.

All in all, this is a visually stunning production with some great character details and touches but it falls down in a couple of areas so I'm giving it four stars. It's two hours and 45 minutes including an interval and you can see it at the Barbican until August 18.