Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in the RSC's new production of 'The Tempest' . Credit: Topher McGrillis
Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo: Topher McGrillis

I am instinctively suspicious of stage productions featuring computer-generated video, even simply as a background display. All too often the “liveness” of the event suffers, with the actual acting playing second fiddle to the FX. When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that the final production in the season marking the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death would not only feature this kind of design but live performance capture into the bargain, there seemed no end of things that could misfire. Yes, The Tempest is the most magical of Shakespeare’s plays, but (pace Arthur C. Clarke) technology ain’t magic.

This time, however, it damn nearly is. Director Gregory Doran and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, working with Intel and actor Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium Studios, have created a series of sumptuous background images — from naive paintbox landscapes to slavering hounds of hell — that complement the action rather than distract from it. The deep thrust stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is crucial in pulling this off, allowing us to feel that the actors are almost among us. When the production transfers next summer to the Barbican, London, the shallower stage there may lead to a disproportionate flattening-out, which may in turn encourage the background to swallow the performers. In the present arrangement, however, liveness is also preserved by keeping actor Mark Quartley onstage as Ariel in his motion-capture bodysuit, so that we hear his natural voice and see his body’s movements directly as well as being mapped on to CGI footage of him making the same moves in the form of a zephyr or a fearsome harpy.

But all the silicon in the world is still outshone by Simon Russell Beale. This is not only the finest Prospero I have ever seen but also — which is really saying something — probably the finest performance from Beale. He is unmatched at finding the ambivalence at the core of a character, and here his intelligence as an actor melds perfectly with the idea that Shakespeare, in his only original plot, was musing on theatre itself. Prospero’s great speeches towards the end of the play are invested by Beale with a profound and equally balanced appreciation at once of the wondrous potency of these visions and their ultimate insufficiency in the face of life itself.

Not all of the supporting cast are flawless: the royal family of Naples doesn’t boast many of the sharpest tools in the box, and Jenny Rainsford as Miranda takes a long time to control her voice from being tremulous to the point of bleating. In contrast, Joe Dixon is a strong, uncomplicated Caliban with a tremendously powerful final moment, and those twin sons of fun Simon Trinder and Tony Jayawardena succeed deliciously in making the clowning roles actually funny. But between the computers and Beale, this is a dual-core, top-of-the-range, futureproof bit of kit.

To January 21,

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