Mark Quartley (Ariel); Simon Russell Beale (Prospero) – photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC
If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howl’d away twelve winters.
How many readers of this blog, I wonder, remember the landmark computer game Myst – or even played it (if “play” is the right verb for something so fascinating and disconcerting…)? “Initially released on the Macintosh platform on September 24, 1993”, and inspired by Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island (perhaps itself borrowing a little from Shakespeare), Myst “was the best-selling PC game until The Sims exceeded its sales in 2002.” Despite its (now) almost-antediluvian technology, the story was extraordinarily immersive, and the (few) characters extremely believable. It therefore had a strong – but strange – influence on the gaming industry (as well as those who explored its eponymous island); and now – when all branches of arts and technology appear to be cross-fertilizing at a rate of knots – seems to be having a similar (if indirect) effect on dramaturgy.
I only ask, because, last night, I found myself overlooking an island not dissimilar, in theory: with a corresponding lack of death; and a comparable library filled with powerful books. However, despite the supposedly cutting-edge technology used to bring it to life, this isle “full of noises” failed to convince, to draw me in: firstly, because that technology seeks to wow, rather than intrigue; and because – rather than stay in the background, to aid plot and character development – when it is used, it overwhelms. We are then almost told how we must think – “Be gobsmacked!” – whereas Myst succeeded primarily because it forced you to think for yourself: there was no single route through its mystery; no single solution.
Despite the pizzazz, Prospero’s island home feels one-dimensional – the wizardry of the RSC’s latest production of The Tempest (about as “cutting edge” as a rusty butter-knife) shrouds, distracts and obfuscates, rather than enables, excites and enlightens: there is a lack of transparency, of subtlety, of doubt, of shade. (Does director Greg Doran honestly believe modern audiences are incapable of suspending disbelief – and that he must attempt to do it for them?) You open the pages of the colouring book to find them already completed: rough, broken pencil-strokes escaping willy-nilly beyond the printed lines.
Well, I must presume you do (mainly referencing the above photo: which came as something of a shock…): as – secondly (and principally) – from where I sat, all I could discern were the bright blinking Cyclops eyes of an army of projectors firing simultaneously into life from all quarters of the theatre, announcing that some privileged(?) members of the audience were about to have some blurry images projected onto various randomly-appearing diaphonous screens the rest of us could not see more than a small fraction of; or, therefore, understand. That the machines responsible for the supposed ‘magic’ were so prominent; that I could see clearly into the wings; that it was all so clunky and badly thought-out from an audience perspective… provoked only one sincere emotion in me: anger (as you can no doubt tell from this attempt at a review). This is not the holodeck I was looking for – and had been promised.
My seat was not marked (on the revised seating plan [pdf] as one with a “Restricted View”. In fact, it was price-band B (normally around £40 – and priced at £55 for the equivalent captioned performance…): on the second row of the circle, stage left. Neither is this the first time such a problem has occurred. Members of my family were sat in similar seats, in the stalls, for Othello, but could not, from there, see much of the action. After my partner kicked up a telephonic fuss (a route unavailable to me, with my duff hearing), we received a refund; and had the seats marked as ‘unsuitable’ on my customer account. Why they were not marked as such for everyone, I do not know.
Unfortunately, my captioned seat, later in the run, is in roughly the same place… – which means that I will be able to see the text clearly (until the dreaded “various randomly-appearing diaphonous screens” are lowered… – which then poses an interesting discriminatory conundrum…) – but not the action.
As I wrote to a friend (edited for sense and language), after discovering that there are others in the same boat (ahem):
This is what happens, of course, when you have tech rehearsals directed from the best seats…. Any director with an ounce of common-sense – rather than an apparent god complex – would wander around every level of the theatre, confirming sightlines, whilst the set is built (like a good conductor moves around a venue – even one he knows well – checking acoustics); and then use the previews to adjust prices (and, if necessary, issue refunds or credits). Such honesty and openness – as well as an admission that the set designer, technicians and director ‘got it wrong’, and didn’t consider the needs of the punters (just their cash) – is anathema to much of the current management, though. (I bet you the press tickets were all dead centre…!)
The RSC’s attention to its customers seems increasingly risible and tokenistic (part of, I believe, the miasma of entitlement that infects those in power in Stratford…) – it only hears and sees (and publicizes) what it wants and needs to. After all, like the Birthplace Trust, it ‘owns’ Will – and has the added benefit of royal patronage. (I may be the only socialist in the village: but come the revolution, etc..)
So, for nearly three – extremely long and tedious – hours, I sat there repeatedly asking “What special effects?” As far as I could see and tell, they either weren’t very special, or weren’t very effective. And I actually wondered, towards the end, if there had been a mammoth technical malfunction that I was unaware of: and the cast had, as a result, fallen back on some Luddite Plan B. What is the point of hyping up the technology when it is used so randomly, and then only confuses? All the hype about Ariel’s performance-captured avatar: when it appeared – as far as I could tell – only two or three times, for a matter of seconds? Lucy Ellinson’s Puck was infinitely more spellbinding. And all she required was her own personal genius, and a hat.
And we’ve had the coloured glass floor before: but, of course, that too is not visible to many (meaning nearly everyone in the Stalls). So – unless your ticket is centred in the Circle (and you’d paid up to £70 for a “Premium Seat”) – you’re screwed. The poor lady next to me kept straining forward to see what we were missing. But, of course, it was as futile as peering over the top of the television set, trying to see what Paul Daniels had in his top hat. (Now, that was magic!)
As I texted my partner at the interval: “I can’t remember ever being bored in the theatre before.” And then, I nearly went home. But I remembered that the technical coup de grâce was supposed to be the wedding masque – the initial inspiration for this presumptuous peacock project. So I gave it the benefit of the doubt; got out of my car again; and returned to my seat. (Thank goodness us cripples only have to pay £16 for the privilege.) Honestly, apart from a few glowing feathers and trims – ultraviolet light, I guess – and some clunkily-animated, faux-Hockney scribblings (which I could just about see the last few inches of – if I leaned forward: further worsening what little view those behind me had…) – it didn’t seem any different to what went before or after it. (Oh, apart from some faux-Mozart Queen of the Night warblings – which made a change from the faux‑Enya dreariness, I suppose: although that had, at least, captured my mood perfectly.)
The opening storm scene should have been warning enough. Having tried every hearing-aid setting I could, and settling on the mixed-live-and-loop programme as the best of a bad bunch, I couldn’t hear a word over the crashing and banging: the sound of the effects perfectly overwriting the frequencies of speech. However, I was truly moved in the scene which followed. Just Prospero (Simon Russell Beale) and Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) on stage. No fiddly stuff. No gizmos. Just two human-beings breaking our hearts. Great, I thought, at least the scenes without technology will be worth my while.
But the wrecked nobles were superglued to the spot (think 1960s opera); and the buffoonery between Trinculo (Simon Trinder) and Stephano (the usually-outstanding Tony Jayawardena) were over-played. And, here we go again, mocking the afflicted, rendering Caliban – the only role I had any empathy (or even sympathy) with – not an object of pity or scorn, or even of hatred (for his past treatment of Miranda), but as a creature who’s a bit slow on the uptake, and is there – as far as I could see… – to be mocked for his disabilities. (Post-truth marketing mixed with post-Brexit attitudes towards ‘otherness’…? Lovely – at least for the entitled Tory voters of South Warwickshire. But not for me. Bloody hell, it felt uncomfortable.)
By the way, before anyone accuses me of being an old fuddy-duddy: firstly, I used to write for the technology pages of the Guardian – he said, establishing his credentials – and, secondly, I don’t object to technology in the theatre one bit. After all, it has made lighting easier, and help it grow into a major component of story-telling; as well as given those of us who require such things captions and hearing loops – although these are still somewhat clunky, from a user perspective. I just believe that utilizing gizmos for their own sake – to the extent that the plot serves them, rather than vice versa – is a trap-ridden cul-de-sac: one where people come to wonder, but not to engage; to gawp, but not to think; to be told, not to enquire. if this is the future of theatre – which I strongly doubt: it simply feels like (especially Shakespearean) theatre experimenting (at the audience’s cost); trying to attract more than its traditional core demographic; whilst wondering how to survive in a world of dying arts education, increasingly-stretched Arts Council grants… – then count me out. (If it is an experiment, how I pray that those who are responsible are – or soon become – aware that it has failed.)
Of course I can see the parallels between Prospero’s magic and Doran’s use of computers – as well as the play’s obvious meta‑references – but I think his justification for the use of so much top-heavy, sporadic, theatrical illusion is dubious, to say the least. Not all of the play is that (anticlimactic) masque. Nor can I find – apart from Doran wanting to see “what would happen if the very latest technology could be applied to Shakespeare’s play today” – a valid artistic reason for doing this. Either the plot has been lost (which it nearly is, burdened as it is with so much active and passive distraction); or this is simply boys (and girls) playing with the newest toys. It almost feels as if the text is secondary to – or even an excuse for – the abilities and facilities that Intel and Imaginarium Studios could provide. (The word used throughout the programme was “theatrical”: but this was mostly of the “Exaggerated and excessively dramatic” variety, rather than simply “Relating to acting, actors, or the theatre”.)
Perhaps Sycorax is still in charge, after all – and what we see is a “Hag-seed” even more twisted than “poor monster” Caliban…? Or Ariel hasn’t been quite as obedient as Prospero believes…!
To discuss the acting in any detail seems pointless. It felt as if the actors were there as props; and to fill the longueurs between ‘effects’. Simon Russell Beale frequently looked as bored as I was; and felt trapped – in more ways than the obvious… – unable to give his masterful all and zoom off into the stratospheric levels of his talent – because of the wizardry (of other people’s making) walling him in. Perhaps he is recognizant of the fact that he has been brought in because of his rightly-earned fame; and perhaps also to lure those for whom the technology is not that great an attraction.
I always believed that The Tempest had mystery at its heart. The only mystery I experienced last night, though, was why there was so much cheering at the end (although I noticed the actors, about to return for a repeat ovation, stopping in their tracks, as the applause suddenly faded; and then promptly reversing…). Truly, our revels now are ended.