The production of The Tempest at the Barbican Theatre has received a lot of buzz over the casting of Simon Russell Beale, venerate stage actor, as Prospero, and for its use of computer animation. To further display the ethereal power of the spirit Ariel, motion capture technology developed by some of Disney’s famed Imagineers is employed to capture the onstage actor’s movement and display it in real time through screens. This allows a more fantastical Ariel to command the stage and then exit without a costume change to shift focus from the spectacle back to the text. This element of the show was used to its greatest effect when depicting Ariel’s imprisonment within a tree; buoyed by the actor’s stiff, struggling movements. However, the delay between the live actor and the animation could be very distracting; primarily in more dialogue heavy sections.
Outside the technological spectacle, the stage felt underused. That is, all but for the first scene depicting the titular tempest itself. Two halves of a ship’s dark skeleton frame the stage upon a beach, and in the first scene the crew shifts in and out the remains. Beyond this and one time Ariel touches it, the ship remains are ignored. Furthermore, much of the blocking felt unmotivated and heavily involved horizontal lines.
The other big source of hype for the show has been Simon Russell Beale’s involvement. He brings to life a Prospero haunted by the past who arranges his petty revenge meticulously. Beale’s Prospero is no distant, gnomic monolith, but a sad, old man clinging to what he thought he wanted. Though, in this depiction, Prospero loses much of his authority as he wheedles Ariel to obey him or takes a seat onstage next to the man he’s trying to impress by conjuring up a colorful but opaque singing performance inserted into the piece.
Additionally, this is the first performance I’ve seen to so clearly divide Trinculo and Sebastian. Trinculo’s clown makeup and bike horn clearly mark him as a rung on the social ladder below Sebastian, which gives the drunk butler more authority from which to fall.
The spectacle of the mocapping technology overshadowed the rest of the show, including Beale’s subdued Prospero, and likely at the core for the mixed feelings with which it was met in our group, as well as the whole audience. One man I overheard speaking to another stted the show was merely “alright”; which I think rather sums up the production.
The Barbican’s production of The Tempest was a masterful stroke of the artistic engine that is the RSC. The company operates with the expertise and equipment that defines the pinnacle of our industry, and therefore they are consistently able to create artwork at a level which few can rival. However, while the production quality of a piece may be particularly high, that has very little relation to the quantity of intellectual material present in the story. While we all enjoy the fruits of good spectacle and elegant text, we are never enthralled by the stories which offer us the mere pleasure of entertainment. The RSC’s production was successful, in my view, because it went beyond those simple aims and raised questions about perspective that I never before recognized as being present in the themes of the play.
It is no secret to me that there is a group of scholars, including some of my pears, who believe that The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s worst works. The main argument to this view is that the action of the play is the straight foreword success of one man who has an inarguably unfair advantage. There is no tension or struggle that needs to be overcome or resolved. I subscribe to this view in some degree, because the play truly seems like an aftermath. The horrible things that have happened to Prospero are only mentioned in small conversations and passing language. The inciting incident of the story occurs before one of the characters is even born.
However, even with this view it is fully possible to contain the climax of the story in the action of the play. The true crises moment would be when Prospero has had Ariel subdue the sailors, his sister, and the royals. He has the ability, due to his magical powers, to then exact a most heinous and malicious revenge. However, that’s not what he does. Prospero is instead inclined to allow, even manipulatively encourage, the union between his daughter and prince Ferdinand. He allows his would be robbers and even his brother who betrayed him, to live. This lends me to believe that before the action of the play began Prospero had already decided to forgive them all. In my view, this means that the progression from seeking revenge to forgiveness is not the life blood of the work.
Rather, the story is ultimately about perspective. The RSC’s production utilized its technical elements to trick the eye in nearly every scene. Starting with the storm itself, they used wonderful shadow and lighting effects that were the product of back and side lighting. The set was comprised of two huge, bowing walls that resembled the interior hull of a dank, molded, and decrepit ship. Between those walls was the main playing space of the stage. During the entirety of the storm that stage floor in the center was never lit. This is because of one of the simplest conventions in theatre which is that, what is not lit does not exist. However, it goes deeper when you analyze the gradation of the walls and how the audience perspective is skewed into believing the walls were closer than they originally appeared. Later our perceptions are skewed in exactly the opposite fashion by focusing our attention at the base of the stage where Prospero first appears and we see the area open up before us.
These kinds of perceptual tricks can be written off as the average practice of any theatre producing any production. However, some of the action was so deliberately encompassing, it makes a point of itself. For example, there is a moment when Ariel is recalling the wooden prison that he was trapped in before Prospero freed him. The stage becomes utterly filled with projections. Every face of every surface shifts and changes into a branch, a leaf, or a piece of bark. The transition was so smooth that for a moment we wonder if we have been looking at a digital work of art this entire time, or has the stage truly moved and we have been tricked into not seeing the moment a screen was pulled in front of us. In the center of it all the massive figure of Ariel stands, on a cylindrical form where he is projected and morphs from the form of a wispy sprite, to a humanoid Ariel, to this wood infused creature entrapped in a tree. Theses perceptual shifts are some of the many that the show employed, such as the fire breathing giant harpy, the deformation of Caliban’s body, and the stage encompassing dress of Juno.
All of these perception-bending devices tie to the text because of the meta-theatrical element of The Tempest. We know by the end of the play, that it is a story within a story. More specifically a story being told by the magic of the man who plays Prospero. He shows us this story through his magic, and within the story Prospero is a good man with good intentions. He chooses to see his betrayal as partly his own error when he describes how he was remise in his study and neglect of office. He chooses to see his betrayal as something that he can forgive. He chooses to encourage the courting of his daughter, via temptation, because he views their childish love as beautiful, rather than a union with his enemy. Further he chooses to look at the foolish drunks who attempt to rob and kill him as arrant children rather than real threats in need of punishment. Prospero the character is faced with massive misfortune and is forcibly removed from his dukedom and marooned on a pitiful island. Yet, he finds a way to be caring and forgiving. Further, Prospero the story teller sees the misfortune he tells us of as an opportunity to craft a cathartic and compassionate denouement for his audience. Once this occurred to me, I began to ask questions about if the man we hear from at the end of the play, who informs us that we have just seen a fictional tale, is retelling a truthful tale he knows. Perhaps we have just seen a deeply editorialized recount of the events of Prospero’s life. Perhaps the man who speaks at the end is not really Prospero at all. Perhaps we have been shown by this production that though some perceptions seem real, all of them can truly be false representations of events, that are shown to us. I would dare say that perception and the ability to manipulate perception is the exact magic which Prospero holds and that is why he is unassailably powerful throughout the text.