It is something of a truism to state that Simon Russell Beale is unmissable in anything that he appears in, ranging from the heights of classical drama to intriguing new plays. (I even have fond memories of his appearance in the schlocky thriller Deathtrap a decade or so ago, in which he slummed it with gusto.) Yet he hasn’t made an appearance with the RSC in aeons, which makes his return to their ranks with his role as Prospero one of the most-anticipated of the year. It is undeniably the case that he is, as usual, wonderful. Yet credit should also go to director Gregory Doran and his ensemble of actors and technicians for producing something on the grandest of grand scales. Even if it doesn’t entirely work, it still offers spectacle by the dozen.
Often described as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre, it is unfortunately the case that, of his major plays, The Tempest is one of the weaker ones, let down by some painfully unfunny comedy, a lack of plot and, for a contemporary audience, some decidedly queasy colonial overtones. Yet, done well, it can still offer an enthralling evening at the theatre, and this new staging, transferring to the Barbican from Stratford, gets particular points for its cutting-edge use of special effects, in association with Intel and the Imaginarium Studios. Beginning with a superbly visceral storm sequence, the visual delights seldom let up, in particular in the motion captured form of Ariel, interpreted as someone who is literally a shape-shifting sprite.
The production was advertised as ‘Shakespeare for the family’, but don’t worry, there is no sign of dumbing down, although the scenes involving Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban feel overlong and lack the slickness that might have made them more entertaining. However, the less than three hour running time is certainly welcome, and, of course, there is one decidedly special effect that cannot be replicated.
I would go and see Simon Russell Beale read the telephone book, or Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, or anything else that one might have thought would challenge the range of this most versatile of actors. Using his voice as if one would manipulate a fine musical instrument, he brings poignancy, richness and psychological acuity to his Prospero, to heartbreaking and powerful effect. At the end, there was a deserved ovation, but it was certainly for the actor, not the play. And that is how it should be.
The RSC’s The Tempest at The Barbican until 18th August 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website. Production images by Topher McGrillis.