A review of the RSC’s production of ‘The Tempest’ in January 2017.
Ariel. If I had to review this play in a single word, that’s the one I’d choose: Ariel.
Shakespeare’s ungendered spirit is bound to the service of the mighty Prospero after being rescued by him from incarceration by the witch who ruled the island before Prospero’s exile. In this production, the character was played by Mark Quartley, who wore a full body suit which used motion-capture technology to project his movements onto black sheets which hung down onto the stage. His bluish hologram danced in tandem with his sprightly flittings around the stage.
Quartley’s performance was incredible: his tip-toeing and constant movement around the stage, combined with his subtle, playful presence in virtually every scene (even those where he wasn’t involved in the dialogue) created the sense that he really was the mischievous and obedient fairy of Shakespeare’s mythical world. Even in the absence of the Intel technology which created his virtual image (but didn’t feature in every scene), Ariel was a compelling and captivating character, with his hair swept back into a point and turquoise, BodyWorks-esque latex suit.
But Ariel’s characterisation wasn’t the only impressively innovative aspect of the production. Holographic harpies and wolves terrified the ship-wrecked sailors, and goddesses rose, exalted, from the depths of the stage floor.
In contrast, the elderly Prospero, whose magic is strong enough to conjure up the eponymous tempest and control all on the island as he pleases, was simply clad and unpolished – perhaps this rustic lack of adornment was intended to indicate his pretenceless majesty. So too with his young daughter Miranda, which made Prince Ferdinand’s enthrallment with her beauty even more compelling, and it was only after he had shed his grand, military-style and gold studded tunic and stood in humble brown trousers and braces, that he and Miranda begun to talk about love in earnest, and make their audience believe in it.
Neither did the cutting-edge technologies used in the performance detract from the essential themes of nature and spirituality, features which characterise its setting. Dancing nymphs in murky green, shredded dresses, with wild hair and flighty steps, moved in harmony and helped Ariel to do Prospero’s bidding. The union of Miranda and Ferdinand was celebrated by a host of goddesses, clothed in vivid feathers and sparkling dresses.
Ditties and chants hummed and sung by Ariel and his team of spirits enlivened the cracked black stage and gave it the real atmosphere of this tropical or Mediterranean island. An opera-style duet was a beautiful addition to the revelries celebrating the young couple’s love.
An atmospheric and innovative rendition which brought Shakespeare slap bang up to date with modern technology whilst maintaining the magical, supernatural charm of the original.