To Stratford, courtesy of Gravesend last night, seeing a live broadcast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest close to home and in relative comfort (alas the theatre designed with sufficient consideration to fit my legs has yet to be built). The production has generated much interest because of the use of its use of live motion capture software, the RSC having worked in partnership with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, the motion capture company founded by Andy Serkis, whose portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy paved the way for virtual reality performance.
I wasn’t sure how digital technology designed to wow a live audience in the theatre would work when projected at a remove for those of us in cinemas up and down the land watching the RSC Live showing. It actually worked well – that is, the screening gave you a very clear idea of how the technology came across, its positive effects and its limitations (as things stand). The production is set with the wreck of a giant hull of a ship, shot through with a blue light that dictates the tone of things. It is in the blackness to the rear of the hull shape that much of the digital magic takes places.
Chief among this is the character of Ariel, played by Mark Quartley in an amphibian-like motion capture suit. We first see Ariel as a giant digital spirit, floating above us amid a mysterious mesh of lighting effects. It is a dazzling introduction, only slightly diminished by not all of Ariel’s outstretched arms being completely visible. Soon enough we see the actor himself, standing towards the back, his movements reflected in the digital manifestation above. This feels a little disappointing – if Ariel is a spirit he should remain a spirit – and as things progress Ariel the human comes centre stage and acts alongside the others in the traditional way. There are only three main sequences where we get digital Ariel with the full works, including an extraordinary imprisoning of Ariel within a tree. I felt let down. I wanted Ariel always to be ethereal. Was it cost that limited the performance in this way, or the problems with the actors trying to interact with the character? Had Shakespeare written an insufficiently digital play?
But there was more than just Ariel’s under-used suit. For the masque with the three goddesses (left out of some productions of the play, because frankly it makes little sense to modern eyes and ears) the stage and rear were transformed by lighting effects into brightly coloured and ever-changing fields and woodlands that looked like they had been designed by late Hockney. Here, more than in ethereal Ariel, you saw a theatre of the future. It most reminded me of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, where a whole lot of money was saved by creating the illusion of a spectacular series of sets through digital projection. It was a stage that could become anything.
Digital projection, virtual reality, augmented reality, motion capture: it is obvious that the future of theatre is digital – that is, digital in how it is performed as well as how it gets projected to wider audiences. We will demand more magic, because our imaginative worlds have been enhanced through cinema’s special effects and possibilities of video games. Theatres will respond, and what might have been only the preserve of music concerts or high profile productions with wide appeal, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, will start to become the norm. Henry V will indeed offer us horses printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth. Shakespearean battles will be peopled with hundreds of soldiers. Rapid scene changes, such as in Antony and Cleopatra, will be achieved at the flick of a button. The days of stage scenery may be coming to an end.
But what made me think is what will happen to the actors? How will they thrive in a world of light, peopled with avatars? Will they be mere pieces of the puzzle in future productions dominated by the digital, or will the technology only exist to serve them? Will such innovations be the transformation and salvation of theatre, or will they bring about its end? We go to the theatre to see humans working their way though dilemmas constrained by the particulars of time and space. Will we become disappointed at the ordinariness of the person standing on a stage, and call for hyper-reality to take over? What will that say about the overall change meaning of what it is to be human, as the digital, the robotic and the virtual take centre stage in our lives? Theatre may prove to be an interesting measure in the future of what it remains to be human.
The Tempest was a fine production, which was not so completely digital that it could not find space for the human. Simon Russell Beale was particularly good as a conscience-stricken Prospero, maybe more of a tyrant than the usurper Alonso, against whom he rages yet who always seems no worse and maybe even a little better than his adversary. There were a genuinely funny Trinculo and Stephano, and a sad, gently spoken Caliban. But I felt a trick had been missed. Prospero should have been shown at a lighting desk, twiddling the knobs to conjure up a digital tempest, calling up spirits and manipulating the fortunes of those on the stage before him. The magician of today should not have his staff and books, he should have his tablet, shifting destinies with a swipe of the finger. There will be bolder Tempests to come, soon enough.