The Tempest

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Mark Quartley and Simon Russell Beale – image by Christopher McGrillis

The Tempest by William Shakespeare – Barbican Theatre, London EC2

It is thirty years since the RSC last staged The Tempest in the hull of a broken ship. Since Derek Jacobi’s 1982 Prospero, with Mark Rylance as a particularly unworldly Ariel, theatrical fashion has swung decisively away from elaborate, literal settings. Greg Doran’s production, luring Simon Russell Beale back to the company for the first time in only 23 years, is a self-declared spectacle. The Imaginarium Studios technological innovation in the form of a motion capture suit for Ariel, but the production ends up paying tribute to the theatre of a previous generation. Fortunately, this includes not only overly elaborate staging, but also unforgettable performances. It is impossible for the audience to take its eyes off Russell Beale’s Prospero who, shrugging off the special effects, masters the role and absorbs it into his peerless repertoire.

The set, by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is the ideal setting for the opening storm scene, vast and terrifying. The island is contained in the hold of a wrecked vessel, and within the imagination of Prospero. Russell Beale’s magician is traditionally cloaked and staff-wielding, consciously part of a lineage of Stratford performers. He is, however, notably agitated and vulnerable, struggling with the unavoidable decision to dissolve the world he has created and lose his daughter. His love for Jenny Rainsford’s gawky, michievious Miranda is touchingly real, but he has clearly prevented her from growing up and growing away from him. When Duke of Milan, Prospero had shut himself away from society and responsibility, and a fantasy world clearly suits him only too well. Russell Beale lays his internal conflict out for us to see and, as a result, is riveting even when Prospero is simply standing and watching at the side of the stage.

The strength of the cast gives this production its power.  Daniel Easton’s Alexander Armstrong-esque Ferdinand is an unlikely partner for Rainsford’s Miranda, raising the possibility that her choice of the third man she ever saw will prove a mistake, and that her father’s closeting has made it impossible for her live an independent life. The traditional RSC elder’s role of Gonzalo fits Joseph Mydell like a glove. James Hayes is a magnificent, Stephano, wig askew, as sober as any spectacularly drunk man has ever been. Simon Trinder sources his bitter clown performance as Trinculo from Reece Shearsmith in The League of Gentlemen.

In the 1982 production the great Bob Peck played Caliban. Joe Dixon, a hump-backed, figure clutching a fish, combines humour and menace to comparably memorable effect. Mark Quartley as Ariel has the toughest job of all, often doubled up by a motion-captured apparition of himself projected above the stage which looks unfortunately like computer game graphics from the late 1990s. When not impeded by the tech he is twitchy like an animal, a force of nature in his Mark Rylance-esque skin suit. There is no repeat of the notable ending to the RSC 1993 Tempest when Ariel, played then by Russell Beale, spat in Prospero’s face when finally released from his duties.

The Tempest is both a satisfying and frustrating experience. Doran demonstrates that the RSC can pull together an exciting cast of fine actors who can deliver serious performances. His recapture of Russell Beale gives the finest Shakespearian of his generation the chance to deliver one of the few lead roles he has not yet touched, and he does not disappoint. If only his unrivalled talent had been trusted to do the job, without the need for distracting and ultimately trivial embellishments.