Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 11 July 2017

Review: The Tempest at the Barbican

June 30 - July 18

Extraordinary risk, ordinary outcome: William Drew reviews the RSC’s bold collaboration with Imaginarium Studios.

William Drew
The Tempest, RSC. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The Tempest, RSC. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

In collaborating with Intel with this production of The Tempest, the RSC are taking hold of an extraordinary opportunity, but with extraordinary opportunity comes extraordinary risk, and risk is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the RSC. Oh come on. It isn’t. They knew they needed a safe pair of hands for this. Enter Gregory Doran, hands so safe they are probably made of Kevlar. It’s all going to be okay with Greg in command. There’s no way this ship is going down. But, just to be on the safe side, let’s get Simon Russell Beale on board too as Prospero. I mean Simon knows what to do, doesn’t he? He’ll do his thing. He’s a genius. It’ll be magic. We don’t need to worry about him.

What about Caliban? Oh dear. How to deal with the mass of racist, post-colonial, Hobbesian mutated mess that is that thing of darkness? Even that line. Thing of darkness. Yikes! It’s 2017, guys. What the hell is this play? It’s fine, it’s fine. Get Joe Dixon. Solid. Give him a hunch-back. Ambiguous. Perfect. We’re back on track. And just to make sure those scenes are actually funny because the lines – let’s face it – just aren’t, we need Simon Trinder to cover that. Great. Comedy: check. Risks mitigated. Dream team.

For those who don’t know, I’m going to do a Prospero-style recap of what goes down. Prospero is a wizard and the Duke of Milan. Twelve years ago, he was ousted by his brother who sent him to an uninhabited island with his daughter, Miranda. Except that it turned out that the island did contain two creatures: Caliban and Ariel. Caliban is basically the lone indigenous inhabitant and Ariel is a spirit. Caliban tried to propagate with Miranda, so Prospero then enslaved him and now he makes him do random stuff not because he actually needs it done (he’s magic, remember) but just because he wants someone to bully, because that’s how we do things in Milan. He also gets Ariel to do whatever he wants. Ariel’s a bit like Siri if Siri could actually do stuff.

Oh yeah, so it just so happens that Prospero’s evil brother and some other guys are passing close to the island on their way back from a wedding, so Prospero summons a massive storm so he can shipwreck them and then exact his revenge. And then he does that. Caliban tries to have a revolution with a couple of piss-heads and that doesn’t work. Miranda marries a prince. Prospero forgives everyone but in a totally sorry-not-sorry sort of way and then he decides he’s giving up magic and that he’ll return to Milan and rule there. So really it’s all about Prospero giving us the back story, explaining what his plans are and then just doing exactly what he planned. There are no obstacles to him in getting what he wants because he is magic and nobody else is.

What this means that the play is pretty majorly problematic as a piece of drama. Arguably it’s not even a piece of drama but a piece of spectacle. It’s not about what he’s going to do but about how he’s going to do it. This applies equally to spectacles created by Prospero or Ariel as it does the poetry (for all my facetiousness about the plot, the language of the play is some of the most beautiful in all of Shakespeare). The whole plot, for what it’s worth, is really just something to hang the spectacle and the poetry on. It’s a vehicle for showing off. At various points, Shakespeare and Prospero start to merge. They revel in their ability to impress with their language, with their power, with their total mastery, but they are also both old men reaching the ends of their lives and becoming disgusted by their own vanity…

For all the mitigation of risks in other elements of Doran’s production, the use of technology never actually feels risky. This is probably because The Tempest is a perfect vehicle to show off the technical innovations of a company like The Imaginarium Studios. It’s all about showing off, after all. Like many of Shakespeare’s later plays, the script itself contains a kind of petulant aggression mixed with melancholic disillusionment with the form it is trapped within. It’s a nuance that the technology cannot capture. Compared to Prospero, tech is innocent, optimistic. Like Ariel, it really, really wants to show you what it can do. It has no time for an old man who know longer sees its uses…

The play finishes with Prospero breaking his staff. Beale has an actual staff and a robe and everything like an actual wizard. In 2017, there’s something adorable about this gesture in the context of a production made in collaboration with a tech giant, and not just because it’s Beale doing it. It reminds me of Trump announcing during his campaign that “we” would have to “shut down the internet” to defeat ISIS. The idea that there’s an analogue means to turn everything off, that Ariel has an off-switch. That we, like Prospero, can get up and walk away. Intel know we can’t. Why would we? Just because the old man stops believing…

The Tempest is at the Barbican until August 18th. For more details, click here


William Drew

William Drew is a writer, narrative designer and dramaturg based in Brighton. He makes work at the intersection between live performance and gaming as Venice as a Dolphin and a Coney Associate. He is Associate Dramaturg of New Perspectives in Nottingham. He spent several years working in the Royal Court Theatre’s International and Literary Departments and has been a script reader for the National Theatre, Hampstead and Traverse Theatres. You can find out more about his work here:

Review: The Tempest at the Barbican Show Info

Directed by Gregory Doran

Written by William Shakespeare

Cast includes Simon Russell Beale, Jenny Rainsford, Joe Dixon, Mark Quartley, Simon Trinder, James Hayes

Original Music Paul Englishby



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