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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Tempest
Barbican Theatre  Summer 2017

The last time Simon Russell Beale played in The Tempest for the RSC was 1994, when he was an angry and rebellious Ariel to Alec McCowen's blithely colonial Prospero. 

Now he returns as Prospero and, as is almost always the case with this actor, he is the most interesting element in a production that can boast of several other strong performances and some much-vaunted computer-generated special effects (about which more later).

Beale is a little slow to reveal his Prospero, but when he does, it is a moving and insightful interpretation. 

This is a Prospero who seems completely at ease with both his isolation and his magical powers, only to discover with shock the degree to which he has been seduced by both and to have real difficulty giving up either. 

The first hints of a complacency-shaking self-discovery come in an unexpected place, in 'Our revels now are ended', as the actor shows the character startled to hear himself say out loud that power and glory are but illusions and vanity. 

When Mark Quartley's Ariel suggests that Prospero should have more sympathy for his fellow humans, Beale has Prospero react with an anger that shakes him, and 'Ye elves of hills' shows his addiction to magic wrestling hard against his determination to give it up. 

I've seen Prosperos who happily abdicated the burden of power and Prosperos who grew as humans when they decided to give it up. I've never seen an actor show as clearly and movingly how very difficult that decision had to be. 

Much has been made of an artistic partnership between the RSC, the computer company Intel and the computer design group The Imaginarium Studios to create onstage magic for this production, but I have to say it isn't very impressive. 

The onstage Ariel is occasionally accompanied by large-scale projections of the character, sometimes in more elaborate costume or make-up. 

We are told that these were created by dressing actor Mark Quartley in a sensor-equipped suit and capturing his movements to create a base for the computer-generated images, in a process similar to Andy Serkis's Gollum in films. 

But the projections just look like films of the actor in fuller costume and they are not synchronised with his actions onstage, so there is nothing particularly magical about the effect, however long-way-around they went to achieve it. 

(Actually, the only time the projections really work is when the operatic masque of goddesses is set against some very colourful naive-art paintings of pastoral scenes.) 

Another reason you won't spend much time looking at the giant projected Ariel is that the real live one onstage is far more interesting. 

Though director Gregory Doran hasn't given Mark Quartley much of a character to play, the performer does move with a dancer's grace and beauty throughout, making this physical Ariel seem more spirit-like and less earthbound than the one projected on the screens above.

Everyone else in the cast underplays nicely – which is a way of saying that director Doran has guided them all to a unified style that serves the play effectively. 

Joe Dixon's Caliban is slow of thought and rough of manners, but neither ridiculous nor animalistic. Jenny Rainsford makes Miranda a bit of a tomboy and a bit of an Amazon, ranking her strengths above her naivete, and James Hayes and Simon Trinder actually manage to be funny (which far too few other pairings ever do) as the clowns Stephano and Trinculo.

Ignore most of the special effects and keep your eyes on the real actors onstage, and you will find much to enjoy in this Tempest.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Tempest - RSC at BarbicanTheatre 2017  
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