Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th November, 2016
The play, often regarded as Shakespeare’s swansong, is brought to vibrant life in this new production from artistic director Gregory Doran. Using pioneering technology (courtesy of Intel), the magical aspects of Prospero’s isle are presented in ground-breaking ways with special effects we are more accustomed to seeing in your average cinematic blockbuster. Most notable is the spirit Ariel (Mark Quartley) projected above us with motion-capture animation while the actor performs upstage. There is a risk that the action is going to be overwhelmed by the marvellous effects but Doran wisely allows Ariel to appear to us live not long after this grandest of entrances. Other scenes use a combination of acting and special effects to create the magical moments of the story – I think the balance is struck; the latter enhances the former. Of course, all the effects in the world aren’t going to make a production if the acting isn’t there – and it is.
Simon Russell Beale is a superb Prospero, managing to be powerful when casting his spells and vulnerable and careworn when dealing with his increasingly independent daughter, Miranda (Jenny Rainsford, blending teenage assertion with childlike dependency). Joe Dixon’s misshapen Caliban is both repulsive and sympathetic – his scenes with the drunkards Trinculo (a very funny Simon Trinder) and Stephano (the mighty Tony Jayawardena, who can do no wrong) are hilarious. I also like Joseph Mydell’s wise old Gonzalo, the bravado of Tom Turner’s Sebastian and Oscar Pearce’s scheming, Machiavellian Antonio. Daniel Easton’s bit of an upper-class twit of a Ferdinand matures nicely into a worthy suitor for Miranda, but for me the most effective relationship is that between master and slave, the magician Prospero and the sprite Ariel. Mark Quartley is excellent as the unworldly creature, moving like a dancer-gymnast-acrobat – his face and voice are no less expressive. “Do you love me, Master?” he asks, with poignant innocence, and Russell Beale’s reply, wrenched from the bottom of his heart, “Deeply” is wrought with pain. It is Ariel who humanises Prospero, the servant teaching the master that revenge is not the way to go, thereby changing the outcome of the story. Magnificent stuff.
Reconciliation is the order of the day and forgiveness and resignation, for a rather moving final scene. Along the way, we have seen and heard wonders, including Paul Englishby’s ethereal music and the beautiful singing of sopranos Juno (Jennifer Wooton), Iris (Elly Condron), and Ceres (Samantha Hay). This is the RSC’s best seasonal, family show for years and it’s practically sold out but perhaps, if you’re lucky and able to perform a little magic, you might be able to snaffle up the odd return ticket. Believe me, it’s well worth the effort.