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.