I finally caught up with a second cinema showing of the RSC's flagship production for 2016 of The Tempest, with our greatest Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. It's a triumph; I've seen him play Iago, Hamlet, Macbeth, Benedict, Lear, Timon, Falstaff and other roles, but I think his Prospero surpasses all of them in its sheer humanity. He wrestles not so much with his enemies on stage but with himself, on a long journey that begins with revenge and ends in reconciliation and forgiveness. It's a wonderful interpretation of the part, which Russell Beale explains very lucidly in his pre-show recorded interview with Suzy Klein.
Unfortunately I was underwhelmed by most of the other aspects of Gregory Doran's production, though I am a big admirer of his approach. The rest of the cast do not reach Russell Beale's level, with the exception of Joseph Mydell as Gonzalo, Mark Quartley as Ariel and and Tony Jayawardena as Stephano. Miranda is supposed to be an immature teenager, but Jenny Rainsford plays her as a knowing and sophisticated adult. As a result, her naive 'O brave new world' exclamation falls flat. Doran tweaks the relationship between Prospero and Caliban by inserting a couple of lines into the last scene and making Prospero hand over his broken staff. A bolder re-interpretation might have been to make Prospero give Caliban one of his books.
This production is unique in its heavy reliance on digital trickery and imagery, with 3-D avatars and all sorts of other business, designed to remove any possibility that the audience might be invited to use their own imaginative powers. I think I might have enjoyed being immersed this production more if I had been in the theatre, but in the cinema it is all flat and two-dimensional and curiously ineffective. Live cinema broadcasts of theatre and opera often score well by using close-ups, but there are very few in this production.
Doran's choice to give a big emphasis to the wedding masque, which is often cut or shrunk, is easier to defend because so few directors are prepared to take the risk. The singing and dancing don't exactly add much to the drama in themselves, but Prospero's violent intervention bringing them to an end with 'Our revels now are ended' is enhanced by the flummery that has gone before.
The RSC, with its massive technical resources, has a weakness for over-designed big productions that ignore Sir Peter Hall's well-chosen theatrical motto 'Less is more'. This is one of them. I don't think the two years of work that went into the digital mastery and CGI added much. This production will be remembered above all for Simon Russell Beale's wonderful performance, which could just as well have been done on a bare stage.
It's called acting.