Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Film Review: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s film of The Tempest.

(Reviewed by Frances, president of the Shakespeare Club of Western Australia.)

The importance of special effects in The Tempest was certainly recognised by the creative team behind this 2016 production, shown on film recently. In a pre-show interview, Director Gregory Doran and Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis claimed that Shakespeare would have loved the technology available to 21st century theatres. They went all out to use it, just as they were sure Shakespeare would have done.

From the very beginning, the performance was full of stunning, wildly imaginative and absolutely ‘right’ visual and aural effects. No doubt any reasonable theatre can put on a storm, but this tempest was right on top of us – deafening thunder claps and dazzling lightning, of course, and then the (apparent) water – the sense of the boat being inundated, sinking, and eventually settling on the sea bed, with an impression of the violent motion of the waves and ship, the greenish mottled light, and the clever set, which had large curved beams at the sides, suggesting the boat’s ribs. And then suddenly we had left the sea and there were Miranda and Prospero on the island, dry and bright in the sun: a superb beginning.

Just some of the many other memorable moments include (for me) a beautiful image of the ship, whole and as if freshly launched, unexpectedly glimmering in the distance while Ariel assured Prospero that all was well; the conjuring up of the pine tree with Ariel caught fast in its twisted trunk as Prospero reminded him of his imprisonment by Sycorax; the dreadful harpy hanging in mid-air as it harangued the courtiers; the abrupt disappearance, apparently in flames, of the feast; the scenes accompanying the goddesses during the masque; and the amazing first appearance of Ariel, seeming to materialise out of thin air, floating in space. This technique, relating to ‘motion capture’ was explained by the actor in an interview during the interval.

As well as these and other visual effects, there were the music and sounds: Ariel’s lovely simple singing, the goddesses in full operatic mode, the noises of the island, and the live musicians in their gallery. It was all exciting and impressive, but the best feature of it all was the fact that every detail served only to support, enrich and elucidate the action and dialogue. The special effects were not a distraction.

The actors were never over-shadowed by the technology. Prospero (Simon Russell Beale) was powerful and angry as he wrestled to balance revenge and mercy, and Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) reflected her unusual upbringing in her strongly independent demeanour. They were ably supported by the rest of the cast.

Then there were the two original inhabitants of the island. Caliban (Joe Dixon) was very interesting. He was tall, but shambled about with bent knees and his body was grotesquely distorted with a great paunch in front and an exposed spine on his back and sores and blemishes all over, but his face was allowed to remain ‘normal’. Unexpectedly, perhaps, he had a lovely voice, which particularly suited the passages in which Caliban described the island as he knew it. He covered the full range of the character’s moods, eliciting both pity and revulsion.

Mark Quartley as Ariel
Ariel (Mark Quartley) was outstanding. I became aware as the action progressed that his face remained at all times entirely impassive: the character was unable to feel (and therefore show) human emotion, and this became entirely clear at the moment of confrontation with Prospero, so delicately handled:

Ariel: … if you now beheld them, your affections
  …Would become tender.
Prospero:  … Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.

I do not know how the actor achieved it, but throughout the play he conveyed the sense of Ariel’s desperate yearning for true freedom; he had been released from the physical bondage of the pine tree, but was then kept subservient to Prospero’s will. Through voice and action (and without the aid of facial expression) he showed us Ariel’s constantly dashed hopes as he faithfully fulfilled each ‘last’ order, only to be set another task. His songs had new accompaniment and I was specially struck by ‘Where the bee sucks’. It was not a jolly little ditty (as it often is) but contained all Ariel’s longing.

It can be easy to forget that The Tempest is a comedy, but this production made sure that no humorous episodes were wasted. Trinculo (Simon Trinder) and Stephano (Tony Jayawardena) worked perfectly together, and with Caliban. The courtiers were costumed to suggest the late 1800’s so Trinculo, the court jester, appeared as the typical 19th century music-hall clown: white face, loud check suit and a hooter with which to punctuate each joke. His and Stephano’s discovery of Caliban was riotous with the confusion of the four-legged creature under the gabardine, and all their scenes were delightfully inventive.

This was a multi-faceted performance in which highly-skilled acting and imaginative use of modern facilities gave us a detailed and thoroughly satisfying exposition of an endlessly fascinating play.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

News from our library

Our president, Frances, has penned a post on a fascinating book, new to our library:

A beautiful book, Shakespeare in Ten Acts by Gordon McMullen, has been donated to our Club by former Secretary Roy Shannon. It has many fascinating accounts and discussions of all sorts of topics relating to Shakespeare's writing and its staging. This includes an account of the first performance of The Tempest in 1610 or 1611, and goes on to trace the 400 year history of the play's production with special reference to the staging and to the interpretation of the text.

The Tempest was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be written specially for the new indoor Blackfriars Theatre. McMullen considers the main differences between the Globe and Blackfriars, which would influence the writing and presentation of plays.

First, the question of light: the productions were no longer reliant solely on daylight, since the use of candles allowed night performances. The artificial light led to an awareness and consideration of which colours and textures would show up best. As well, sequins and other accessories were used more freely, thanks to their sparkling and reflecting qualities.

The sound and acoustics differed. The huge, open Globe required loud and relatively unsubtle noises, but in the confined and more intimate space of Blackfriars it was possible to introduce a greater range of more delicate sound effects. This is particularly striking in The Tempest, which employs many different noises, both pleasant and chaotic. Music became a much more important feature, with many and varied purposes for both instrumental music and song in The Tempest.

Because candles needed regular trimming it was convenient to break the action into scenes. While the candles were attended to, it was possible to introduce entr'acte music, and there was the chance to change hangings or scenery.

In Blackfriars there were various new stage tricks available, for instance allowing characters to disappear (or appear) from below or above (such as the goddess Juno descending to bless the wedding). Although we don't know exactly how it worked, there was also the ‘quaint device’ by which the magic banquet vanished before the courtiers could eat.

After this summary, McMullen, describes three landmark productions:

a) In 1667 a free adaptation by Davenant and Dryden had many changes of characters and plot, but it retained a lively awareness of the importance of special effects.

b) In 1857 Charles Kean's production had such complex scenery that 140 plus stage hands were required to move it. At that time most observers agreed that elaborate spectacle was essential, but there was an interesting divergence of opinion from Hans Christian Andersen, who said: ‘Everything was afforded that machinery and stage direction can provide...(but)...Shakespeare was lost in visual pleasure; the exciting poetry was petrified by illustrations; the living word had evaporated.’

c) The 1904 production by H. Beerbohm Tree was the first to use electric light. Tree said that ‘The Tempest most demanded the aids of modern stage-craft.’ (Interestingly, in this production Caliban was portrayed sympathetically, not, as traditionally, a clown.)
McMullen surveys the modern era, with its continued use of spectacular effects, but evolving to more sophisticated political interpretations of the text. He notes that since 1950 productions have aired questions of colonialism, racism, sexual and familial psychology.

He concludes: ‘The tradition of The Tempest spectacle has ... retained its hold, in one way or another, to the present.’

Having just seen the film of the RSC's 2016 production, I can endorse this comment. It was an extraordinary piece of theatre in which the director and his designer (and indeed a large creative team) used every 21st century means available to them to make for their audience an absolutely magical experience.