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The Tempest starring Simon Russel Beale

Review of The Tempest starring Simon Russell Beale at the Barbican

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

It used to be that the RSC production cycle would see the opening of a set of new productions at Stratford-upon-Avon one year and then the following bring them to the Barbican in London where they used to be the resident theatre company. Now only selected parts of the RSC Stratford programme make their way to London, and often only after a long delay; next week, for example, sees the belated transfer, two years after its premiere in the Swan, of Helen Edmundson's new play Queen Anne (to the West End's Theatre Royal, Haymarket). 

But The Tempest has made a slightly faster - but still delayed - transfer. It was first seen at Stratford last November, playing until January; now it arrives in London for a summer run with the RSC once again in part-time residence at the Barbican, where its high-tech effects seem very much at home on the high, wide expanse of that stage.

This is also the London theatre of choice for such theatrical innovators as Ivo van Hove, Robert Lepage and Simon McBurney who have each long also both been experimenting with combining different versions of theatrical reality.

So the RSC's bold experiment in the very first use of "live motion capture" in a stage production, in which an actor's movements are translated, via sensors placed on a  body suit he is wearing, into a computer generated avatar that is projected in real-time to complement and underscore the action, feels less out of place than it did in Stratford-upon-Avon where I first saw it.

And although I remain unconvinced by the technology itself,  it didn't actively annoy me as much the second time around, and it also felt like Mark Quartley, the actor affected as an ethereal Ariel, was actually allowed to come out from behind the avatar more on this occasion; tip-toeing around the stage with real delicacy, he has an interesting intensity in real life, not just on screen. 

But it also underlined once again how neither he nor the play really needed the gimmick; and also the special, raw power of an actor who doesn't need any of it, just a total command of the language and his character, in Simon Russell Beale's utterly mesmerising Prospero. 

Beale just gets better and better every time I see him; there's a stillness - and a sadness - about him that simply accesses emotion with a directness that is extraordinary. The play speaks of rough magic, and there's nothing more magical in British theatre nowadays than hearing Beale at the height of his powers. 

Gregory Doran's production, with its beautiful, imposing design of the skeleton of a ship wreck, comes with vivid splashes of visual colour on an ever-changing video backdrop, and some truly gorgeous operatic singing. 

But when Beale speaks, the play is at its most musical and most magical.

Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC

Originally published on

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