The Tempest is a production that is two years in the making. “Why?” I hear you ask. Well, because it promises to be one of the most innovative productions of this year. Teaming up with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios (Andy Serkis’s production company, and self-professed ‘next generation of storytelling’), the RSC’s Sarah Ellis (head of digital development), and Gregory Doran (artistic director) have come up with a bold reimagining of Shakespeare’s fantastical play. It is the last production of 2016 in the RST, marking the conclusion of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday year of celebration in Stratford-Upon-Avon. To discuss this production, Sarah Ellis, Simon Russell Beale (who is playing Prospero), and Mark Quartley (who is playing Ariel), all sat down for a Q&A session in The Other Place.
Sarah Ellis, recent recipient of The Hospital Club’s 2016 Cross Industry Collaboration Award, explained how she saw the Intel video of the Leviathan in 2014 and showed Gregory Doran who set the challenge to look into it. Two years of intensive research and work with experts in the field of motion capture, and the idea for the very first live motion capture performance appearing in a major classical stage production was born.
It is Ariel, as Prospero’s spirit, who has the fun wearing the motion capture suit. We were assured, however, that it is unlike what you would assume (something akin to ping pong balls velcroed onto pyjamas. Instead the sensors are within the suit – essentially a costume with the sensors built in. This means that, unlike in films and television, where the editing is done afterwards, the motion capture is happening in real time, which sounds pretty cool. What followed was a technical discussion, where they all agreed that it was difficult figuring out exactly what vocabulary they should use to describe what they are doing. Digital projections, digital avatar, digital transformations, 3D moving figures? What it boiled down to on the technical side was that it was going to be new, exciting, and could really go either way.
“Beale describes this production as ‘ravishingly beautiful’ and ‘saturated with colour’”
The Tempest also marks Simon Russell Beale’s return to the RSC after a 23 year hiatus, where he last played Ariel in a Sam Mendes production of The Tempest. A self-proclaimed ‘unpuritan’ when it comes to Shakespeare, he explained how Gregory Doran presented an “intellectually watertight case” for why they were experimenting with live motion capture. That Ariel can transform himself in front of your very eyes provides a very interesting idea, yet also makes sense when one considers the whimsical nature of this play, Beale commented that “it was both exciting and not abusive of the text”.
Indeed, even with all of these technological innovations, the narrative is to remain the main priority. All of the cast and creators seeming to agree that the set and production serves to really enhance Shakespeare’s story. Really, they are simply focusing on the idea of ‘the masque’ and the ambitions behind it in Shakespeare’s time and how that would translate to a 21st century performance.
Beale describes this production as “ravishingly beautiful” and “saturated with colour”. This version of The Tempest seems to aim to embody “such stuff as dreams are made on” in both production and casting. Whether it is a good or bad dream remains to be seen. Suffice to say, I am more excited than ever and am hoping for the former.
P.S. Though not actually discussed in the Q&A, Conduct the Storm deserves a mention. Because, honestly, it sounds pretty incredible. As an accompaniment to this production, the RSC are presenting a free interactive installation in the front of house space in the RST from November 8th 2016 –January 21st 2017. Created by digital creative agency Flying Object, the installation is inspired by the storm at the beginning of The Tempest. The theatre-goers (or anyone really) will be able to simply wave a hand and control a digital storm. Promised to be an ‘unexpected and powerful experience’ for audiences, it looks well worth the visit.