The Tempest review: A masterpiece, in spite of some digital gimmickry

By Oliver Smith 21 November 2016
Mark Quartley as Ariel, photo by Intel Corp.

Not the high-tech marvel we hoped for, The Tempest is an exceptional modern work of art that isn't dragged down by its technological shortcomings.

When I heard the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was reinventing The Tempest for the 21st century, using the latest motion capture technology from Intel and Imaginarium Studios, I knew it wouldn’t be a show to miss.

And it’s true, the RSC’s The Tempest is a true theatrical masterpiece.

Read more: The Tempest is coming to life with shipwrecks, storms & fantastical digital creatures

Simon Russell Beale brings incredible gravitas to the role of Prospero, Mark Quartley is a sprightly and mischievous Ariel, while Joe Dixon’s oafish Caliban brings an element of comic relief to Shakespeare’s tale of romance and redemption.

But this masterstroke of theatre, orchestrated by RSC artistic director Gregory Doran, is all achieved in spite of the digital gimmickry supplied by partners Intel and Imaginarium Studios, not because of it.

Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC.

Modern day magic

In the days of William Shakespeare the very latest technology was used to bring his plays to life.

Innovative stage machinery to move set pieces around, coloured gels placed in front of candles to introduce colour, and detailed costumes designed to be quickly removed or worn at a moment’s notice.

These were hugely expensive visual spectacles that wowed audiences, not just because of the Bard’s gripping scripts, but because of the ‘magical’ technologies they saw on stage.

The technology used in most theatres today largely resembles updated versions of these three innovations, albeit with some digital projection and audio added for good measure.

That’s what makes the RSC’s latest play so fascinating, using motion capture to transform Ariel into an animated character using live motion capture.

Think what The Lord of the Rings did for Andy Serkis’s Gollum, but with actor and digital character both on stage in real time, with Mark Quartley wearing a sensor-equipped bodysuit to transpose his movements, almost as a puppeteer to the digital version of Ariel.

The technology, journalists were told at a press conference before a screening last week, has never before been used in a theatre in real time, and in a preview demonstration it appeared impressive.

Sadly while this may be “cutting-edge” technology, on stage any pretence of ‘magic’ was quickly broken.

Prospero gazing over the digital avatar of Ariel, photo by Intel Corp.

A digital disaster

While Quartley danced around stage, jumping between the skeletal rafters of the sunken ship in which the play is staged, his digital Ariel avatar clearly lagged many seconds behind him.

In fact, had I not been told that this live motion capture was taking place, I imagine most members of the audience wouldn’t even realise there was any technological wizardry happening.

Instead I imagine most people simply assumed this was a pre-recorded visual gimmick, albeit one that lagged a good time behind what was actually happening on stage.

Luckily for everyone this disappointing digital distraction is easily ignored as Quartley’s excellent performance can be clearly seen on-stage at all times, as can the rest of the exceptional cast.

This is Shakespeare at its very finest, The Tempest rises and succeeds in spite of its digital gimmickry, not because of it.

RSC artistic director Gregory Doran and director of design Stephen Brimson Lewis both mused that the kind of live motion capture they have pioneered in The Tempest could be an intrinsic part of the future of theatre.

I, for one, hope not.

Miranda, Prospero and Joe Dixon as Caliban, photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC.

The Tempest can be seen at the Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 21 January 2017, tickets from around £40. It will be in cinemas from 11 January 2017 and will be coming to the Barbican, London, 30 June – 18 August 2017.