Another splendid evening this week in our local Picturehouse last week watching the RSC’s dazzling staging of The Tempest, featuring magnificent and memorable performances by Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel. This is the production that utilises performance capture technology from Imaginarium Studios to render Ariel’s animated avatar live in three dimensions on the Stratford stage. Brilliant as the special effects were, it was the acting which held us spellbound.

With the advance publicity tending to focus on the fact of this being the first British stage production to incorporate performance capture, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the opening storm sequence. Nor did I quite understand why the set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis and unaltered throughout, should consist of gigantic wooden spars, the remnants of the wrecked ship’s hull.

Ariel appears on stage above Prospero
Ariel appears on the wrecked ship stage set above Prospero

But these are minor quibbles. As director Gregory Doran pointed out when interviewed before the performance by Suzy Klein, applying the latest technology to a production of The Tempest is not out of place: Shakespeare’s play includes a masque that would have required the latest stage machinery, and some of the stage directions suggest the use of various up-to-the-minute special effects. The main result of the collaboration with Imaginarium Studios is to create an Ariel whose human form is given an ethereal shape. So we see Mark Quartley on stage, but simultaneously his living presence is translated into a computer-generated image that floats across solid surfaces and takes on multiple forms. For me, it wasn’t until Act 3 just before the end of the first half that the technological wizardry really paid off.

This is the point in the play where King Alonso and his courtiers are searching the island for Prince Ferdinand. Suddenly, magical creatures bring forth a banquet, placing tempting dishes before the hungry men. Just as they are about to eat we get this stage direction, itself evidence that Shakespeare intended the best magical effects that Jacobean theatre could offer to be used at this point:

Thunder and lightning. Enter Ariel like a harpy; claps his wings upon the table; and, with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes.

What Imaginarium Studios have concocted is a rapacious monster straight out of a video game, sporting human head and body and a dragon’s wings and claws, spreading flame through the sky. It is a genuinely impressive moment.

Throughout the play, Quartley, lithe and nimble, wears a scaly figure-hugging bodysuit lined with motion-capturing sensors (which reminded me of drawings by William Blake). As he twists, turns and moves on the stage, above him flits and floats his avatar, dissolving in misty, multiplying forms projected onto gauze-like sheets hanging from a structure that looks a lot like the mothership in Close Encounters.

The most effective use of the digital technology came in the second half with the masque scene, where Prospero conjures up a lavish play-within-a-play to delight Miranda and Ferdinand, the betrothed lovers. Imaginarium’s effects enhance what must be the most faithful presentation of a Jacobean masque on a modern stage – complete with lavishly-costumed and coiffured operatic divas, dancing and mime shows. The courtly pageant is bathed by Imaginarium’s wizardry in a wash of vividly-coloured fields and flowers that surely borrowed heavily from those Yorkshire and California landscapes painted by David Hockney that pop with vivid greens, purples and yellows.

The masque in the RSC production of The Tempest
The masque in the RSC production of The Tempest

The point here is that by including a masque in The Tempest, Shakespeare was incorporating the multimedia form of his time, one that required innovative stage machinery to produce effects that would astonish. So there is nothing out of place or inappropriate in the RSC utilising Imaginarium’s digital skills. If Shakespeare were around now, it’s not hard to believe that if he was offered the latest technologies, he would welcome them wholeheartedly

Nevertheless, whilst the effects are innovative, complementing and enhancing the production, for me, the visual spectacle paled beside the powerful performances of the cast, Shakespeare’s lyrical poetry, and the play’s central themes of creativity and art, colonisation, who are worthy to be considered part of humanity  – and forgiveness.

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

As Paul Taylor observed in his review for the Independent, Simon Russell Beale ‘marks the occasion by turning in one of the most profoundly moving performances of his career …delivering the verse with a quietly spoken mastery.’ He concludes that this is ‘the most human, complex, and vulnerable Prospero I’ve ever seen.’ For The Stage, Mark Shenton wrote that Simon Russell Beale was ‘dignified and moving’, his performance stealing the show in his return to the RSC for the first time in over 20 years.

His remarkable clarity of voice, even in the frequently subdued tones he speaks in here, is matched by a clarity of thought that makes every line resonate with feeling.

Mark Quartley’s Ariel also deserves special mention. With a swept-back cockatoo hairstyle, his way of moving around on tiptoe, and the compelling stillness of the personality with which he endows his character, Quartley gives us a remarkable Ariel, even before making judgements about the performance of his avatar.

There are more strong performances from Joe Dixon as Caliban – another actor wearing a body suit adorned with outsized sores and a deformed spine that projects outside his back – and by the comedy acts of Trinculo (played by Simon Trinder as a tartan-trousered jester with teary clown-face and random tufts of hair) and Stephano (Tony Jayawardena); between them they provide a hilarious double-act. There’s strong support as well from Daniel Easton and Jenny Rainsford as the young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda.

Simon Trinder as Trinculo, Joe Dixon as Caliban and Tony Jayawardena as Stephano
Simon Trinder as Trinculo, Joe Dixon as Caliban and Tony Jayawardena as Stephano

Given the times we are living in, I was amused to discover that even back then Shakespeare was onto Donald Trump, when he has Prospero order Ariel:

This was well done, my bird.
Thy shape invisible retain thou still:
The trumpery in my house, go bring it hither,
For stale to catch these thieves.

Not really, I know: ‘trumpery’ referred to attractive articles of little value or use, while a ‘stale’ was a decoy, gull or prostitute. Still, it’s strange how words resonate through the centuries.

The First Folio 1623: The Tempest
The First Folio 1623: The Tempest

Maybe it’s a function of getting on in years, but this time, for me, the play resonated with a sense of the valedictory. The Tempest was the last play written entirely by Shakespeare (he did co-write two more plays between 1611 and 1613, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen) but after that, no more before his death in 1616. The Tempest didn’t find its way into print until the 1623 Folio was published. Though Harold Bloom maintains The Tempest cannot be viewed as a valedictory work, that’s what it sounded like to me:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on: and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The first recorded performance of The Tempest took place at the King’s court on 1 November 1611. Since it’s unlikely that the players would have risked a premiere before the king, it’s safe to assume that the play had already been performed publicly before that date.

The date of the play’s composition is interesting if we are seeking clues as to the source material that might have influenced Shakespeare or inspired him to write the play (since it is not based, as are several of his other plays, on pre-existing stories). It’s been suggested that the prime inspiration came from descriptions of the shipwreck off the Bermudas on 25 July 1609 of ‘Sea Venture’, one of a fleet of nine vessels under the command of Sir George Somers that had sailed from England with provisions and five hundred settlers for the newly founded colony of Virginia. The crew reached one of the islands in safety, and in May 1610, continued their voyage to Virginia in two boats of cedar which they had built on the island.

Meanwhile, news of the disaster had reached England, where excitement increased when survivors returned home in 1610 and recounted their experiences. That year saw the appearance of at least four narratives of the wreck, any of which Shakespeare is likely to have read. If these reports did influence Shakespeare, this would make late 1610 or early 1611 as the likeliest period in which he wrote The Tempest, the same months during which The Winter’s Tale was written.

William Strachy's account
William Strachy’s account of ‘the most dreadful Tempest…their wrack on Bermuda, and the description of those islands’

Some commentators argue that The Tempest has its origins in Michel de Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals, partly an exploration of the authenticity of travellers’ tales from the New World. Translated from the French by John Florio and published in London in 1603, Of Cannibals examines the contrast between so-called primitive societies and those that pride themselves on their civilisation. Montaigne argues that the ‘civilised’ man simply condemns as barbaric behaviour which he neither knows nor understands, whilst being blind to the barbarities of his own society’s customs of torture and cruel execution. If Shakespeare had, as many experts believe, read Of Cannibals, it would explain his ambiguous portrayal of Caliban. That ambiguity was emphasised, I thought, in Gregory Doran’s production, which drew my attention to the way in which Shakespeare gives Caliban some of the most beautiful lines in the play:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Doran’s direction seemed to emphasise the question of to whom this ‘utopian’ island really belongs: is it ‘Prospero’s island’ or is it, in fact, Caliban’s? Can there be a better description of the act of colonisation and expropriation than this?

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,
Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how 485
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms 490
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock …

Or maybe the island belongs to Ariel, who freely roamed the island before being subjugated by Sycorax? Which would suggest an ecological interpretation, the beginning of nature raped by human conquest.

Joe Dixon as Caliban with Miranda and Prospero
Joe Dixon as Caliban with Miranda and Prospero

A further strand in this magnificent play is Shakespeare’s presentation of Prospero as a kind of Renaissance ideal of the learned occult philosopher – perhaps a dramatic version of his contemporary John Dee, who combined knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and navigation with astrology, alchemy, and conversing with spirits through a medium. The fields of magic and science that seem to modern eyes like irreconcilable opposites – the one irrational, unprovable, superstitious, the other rational, empirical and enlightened – were much more closely allied in Shakespeare’s time.

In 1608, Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, acquired the Blackfriars Theatre, which soon became the leading and most advanced playhouse in London. Possessing a theatre equipped with artificial lighting and amenities that other playhouses did not have, Shakespeare’s company were able to deploy magical effects in stage performances such as The Tempest. In Neil MacFarlane’s 2012 BBC radio series, Shakespeare’s Restless World, Greg Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company explained the impact:

When they moved inside to the Blackfriars theatre, they had control of light and that’s a very important factor. If you can control the light, you can control the effect. In the Globe’s stage, in the open air with no lighting effects to speak of, with the audience wrapped all the way around, very very difficult to as it were to hide the strings.’

It was at Blackfriars that stage magic reached a new pitch of sophistication, employing effects in The Tempest that had been developed by Dr John Dee, who himself likely inspired Marlowe’s damned Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero.  Dee was famous for what he called his ‘showstones’: reflective mirrors in which, combining prayer and optics, he claimed he was able to conjure and talk to angels.

One of Dee’s mirrors is in the British Museum. It’s an Aztec mirror, a large round disc of highly polished obsidian, black volcanic glass, a piece of Spanish booty brought back from Mexico. Aztec royalty used obsidian mirrors, like this one, as symbols of their power and as a means of seeing into the future, deriving part of their authority from a god they called ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’. ‘When Spanish science defeated the magic of Mexico’, said MacGregor, ‘this magical object travelled to Europe where it became part of a different, but disconcertingly similar, structure of knowledge possessed only by a few’.

This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of: some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.
– Alonso, The Tempest

Learning is crucial to Prospero’s power, as represented by his library of books that he had somehow managed to save when he was washed ashore. (Remember Peter Greenaway’s 1991 film, Prospero’s Books, in which Greenaway speculated about the contents of that water-soaked library: what books did he have, and how did he use them?)

As far as Caliban is concerned, Prospero’s books must be destroyed, ‘For without them / He’s but a sot, as I am’:

Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him,
I’ th’ afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am,

Interestingly, in this production after Prospero has renounced his books and his magic, breaking his staff and ‘deeper than did ever plummet sound’ drowning his book in the sea, there is a reconciliation of sorts with Caliban in which Prospero hands him the two halves of his staff. After attempting to unite the two halves, Caliban enters Prospero’s cave to begin studying his books.

In the epilogue, Prospero addresses the audience, telling us that everything we have seen was all in our imagination:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

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