The Tempest review: Technical wizardry and a magical performance from Simon Russell Beale ★★★★

The Barbican's production of Shakespeare's last play blends fine performances with state-of-the-art motion capture technology

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Given the recent ructions over at The Globe, you could be quite forgiven for thinking that, like die-hard Dylan fans, Shakespeare audiences will scream “Judas!” the second you turn on a plug and dare go electric. 

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But that’s far from the truth. The anticipation surrounding the RSC’s new digitally enhanced Tempest was more due to the technological wonderments than Simon Russell Beale’s return to the company after 20 years. 

The RSC have collaborated with Intel and digital gurus Imaginarium Studios to create a three-dimensional canvas where holograms bend and shape themselves across an imposing, stage-spanning shipwrecked galleon. The skeletal husk seamlessly transforms into the wooden sinews of Ariel’s prison within a tree, lush forestry and painterly, almost Hockney-like landscapes that are saturated with vibrant colour. It’s simply gorgeous to look at, and all without a single scene change.

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Simon Russell Beale and Mark Quartley; main picture: Jenny Rainsford, Beale and Daniel Easton (photos by Topher McGrillis)

The character of Ariel adds the most impressive hi-tech touch. The actor playing the spirit, Mark Quartley, wears a sensor-equipped suit, so his movements are translated into a digital avatar that glides over the stage. In real-time, he brings life to the magical manifestation in a fascinating way you’re unlikely see anywhere else outside of a computer game.

The danger with this type of production is always that the eagerness for digital daring eclipses the power of the story and the performances. Not here. Director Gregory Doran knows when to turn it up to 11, but also when to dial it back and let Shakespeare’s fable of betrayal and forgiveness speak for itself. 

For all the technical wizardry it’s still those flesh and blood actors that are the most captivating. Avatar or no avatar, Mark Quarterly is great as Ariel. Moving with a dancer’s musical grace, he perfectly embodies the ethereal majesty of the bewitching sprite. 

Simon Russell Beale plays Prospero and proves just how finely honed his stagecraft is. He howls with primal rage as he lets out the anger of his unjust exile. But as the patriarch’s vengeance fades to virtue, his pity never feels like weakness. There is a sombre dignity in his mercy that speaks to the compassion at the heart of the story. 

There are also fine performances from Joe Dixon as a doleful Caliban who evokes sympathy; Simon Trinder as the hilarious Trinculo; and Jenny Rainsford as Miranda who, despite her best efforts, will always remain one of Shakespeare’s weakest female characters. 

The RSC has struck just the right balance between the spectacle of the new and staying true to the original intent. It reinvigorates one of the Bard’s last plays, and leaves it feeling, like that famous Dylan song, forever young. 

The Tempest is at the Barbican until 18 August


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