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RSC The Tempest at Barbican Theatre

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Futuristic Version With Avatar Technology
The new Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of The Tempest will transfer to London's Barbican Theatre for just seven weeks in the summer, so what can audiences expect?

The tempest RSC, the barbican, mark Quartley
Special effects that dreams are made on in the RSC's The Tempest

Directed by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran and starring Simon Russell Beale in the lead role of Prospero, it's a digitally enhanced production that opened in the RSC's home in Stratford upon Avon last year.

I caught the show in Stratford and London audiences will get the chance to experience The Tempest at the Barbican Theatre from June 30 to August 18.

Embarking on new avatar technology to bring spirit Ariel to life, this cutting-edge production feels as though it is changing theatre forever and has collaborated with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios to achieve it. The result is that it merges cinematic theatrics with ground-breaking stage effects.

Shakespeare's The Tempest is perfectly suited to this technology as it is set on a magical island inhabited by spirits. Mark Quartley plays loyal spirit Ariel and is kitted out in a sensor-equipped body suit. This suit picks up on his every move and expression, transforming him into an ethereal, blue glowing computer-generated character floating above Prospero at key points in the play.

It's in a similar vein to the motion-capture technology used by actor Andy Serkis to create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films.

The RSC tempest , barbican, london, Simon Russell Beale
Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in the RSC's The Tempest.

Quartley is a beguiling and agile Ariel, playing him with a touch of vulnerability and emotional insecurity. He has a touch of the elfen about him and his scenes with Prospero are the most emotional in the production. Their relationship is portrayed tenderly, like father and son.

After a 20 year break, Simon Russell Beale returns to the RSC to play a fairly gentle, sensitive version of Prospero in the play widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's best.

Slow to get going, much of the first 20 minutes is bringing the audience up to speed on the backstory with little action as Prospero explains to his daughter Miranda how his brother and colleagues usurped him from power and set them adrift at sea.

Surviving by chance to land on a magical island, Prospero is able to acquire the power of sorcery and years later has created a tempest to shipwreck the men who betrayed him and bring about their come-uppance.

The set is shaped like the inside of a huge ship but is easily transformed with impressive digital technology and lighting from within cracks in the floor.

Caliban, the tempest, RSC, London barbican
Caliban is one of the interesting characters in The Tempest

From below these cracks appears slave Caliban. A towering beast who is wonderfully dopey yet endearing. Although far too dim-witted for Prospero, he somehow makes you back the underdog with his slow mannerisms and silliness when drunk. Joe Dixon does a wonderful piece of character acting, bringing this down on his luck monster to life.

What really adds zest to the production is Dixon's lively chemistry with Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder, playing jokers of the pack Stephano and Trinculo. The three of them bring a pantomime style hilarity to the performance and lifts it whenever they appear. Their light storyline balances well with the darkness of Prospero's plot of revenge.

Despite some fine acting though, it's ultimately the special effects that steal the show. They dazzle to such a degree that I wonder whether these cinematic tools are distracting too much away from the simple beauty of the language and acting.

Interestingly, there's a nod in this production to the 'masques' from the court of King James I, when new elaborate theatre techniques, lighting and scenery were seen as cutting edge of the time(1603) but paved the way for theatre as we know it today.

So, shortly after the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, maybe this is the time to embrace the changes in technology and how it can enhance his work to refresh it for another 400 years to come.

There's no doubt that this new Tempest is a spectacular, ground-breaking production - and it's also moving the goal posts for theatre.

The Tempest by The RSC
Running time: 2 hrs 23 mins a 20 min interval

June 30, 2017 - August 18, 2017
Barbican Theatre
Tickets from the Barbican Box Office 020 7638 8891 or Barbican website.

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Why? See Shakespeare's the Tempest with futuristic avatars
When: June 30 - August 18
Phone: 020 7638 8891
Where: The Barbican Theatre in London
Cost: 10 - 75
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