‘The Fringed Curtains of Thine Eyes Advance’: Theatre, The Tempest, and Technological Advance

Gregory Doran concluded his season as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company with an innovative performance of ‘The Tempest’. The production which uses live performance capture technology – the result of a two-year collaboration with Intel. Onstage, Ariel is transformed into an avatar working in real-time as actor Mark Quartley morphs in and out of human form, projected into a series of enormous figures which loom over the stage. It is a feat which perfectly captures the liminal nature of Ariel’s character, at once both within and without, bound to Prospero but longing for his liberty. Projection mapping in wedding masque scene vividly brings to life a sensory and colourful spectacle of singing, dancing and music, transporting the magic and spiritual into a form which is tangible and easier to understand.

Within our society the convergence of theatre and technology is an inevitability, and one which we should embrace rather than shy away from.

The result of the RSC’s enterprise is technically spectacular. Transplanting what is typically used for pre-recorded footage into live theatre, Doran’s vision is a fitting cliché for the ‘brave new world’ envisaged by Miranda. His brain-child comes at an interesting time in the world of modern Shakespearian production – earlier this year Emma Rice announced that she will be stepping down from her role as artistic director at the Globe, following a run of radically modern re-workings of the original texts. It was deemed by the board of the theatre that such performances and adaptations went against the purpose and ethos of the Globe. As they bang the drum of historical accuracy in their attempts at reconstructing an authentic atmosphere in their performances, it seems that they are taking a step backwards, entrenched in a Shakespearian idolatry which appears blind to modern culture. Rice’s move strikes a blow not only against the representation of women in high-powered creative roles, but also the imaginative fuel of her artistic vision which worked to keep Shakespeare alive.

Within our society the convergence of theatre and technology is an inevitability, and one which we should embrace rather than shy away from. We should be using spaces like the Globe to seek to investigate the ways in which early modern theatre can remain relevant and interesting to a 21st century audience; many viewers may believe themselves to be distanced and disconnected from the language and ideologies of Shakespeare’s time, it is the job of companies and directors to demonstrate that this is not the case. Rather than pandering to the wants of theatre purists, it is the job of individuals like Rice and Doran to excite people with the theatre, to allow them to engage, culturally, socially and politically with what appears onstage.

The potential wonder of modern technological advancement and theatrical innovation is highlighted in Doran’s production, as the audience are immersed in an imaginative world which moves beyond the realms of static staging. It is a unique and immersive experience, a form of modern story-telling which relishes in its simultaneous contemporaneity and antiquity. The productions of both Doran and Rice bring a fresh perspective into the theatre, yet a perspective which still illuminates and supports the original texts. The potential to push boundaries is what keeps theatre alive. As live performance competes with the ever-increasing and alluring powers of film and television, these creative labours are crucial in perpetuating the success of the stage. It is telling that we can return to Shakespeare’s original text to find support for this argument – as Sebastian says in the second act of The Tempest, “what’s past is prologue.”

The Tempest will be shown in a screening from the RSC in The Phoenix Picture House, Jericho on Tuesday 17th January at 12.00pm.