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.

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