Performance #18: The Dullest Spectacular

On Friday our class took a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, which was my third time visiting this fine little town. I last visited it a little more than a month ago, actually, so it felt like it was only yesterday since I’d been there. We came to see a performance of The Tempest (Shakespeare) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It’s funny how life works sometimes, because last time I was in England my father and I saw a performance of (you guessed it) The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Below is a picture from the performance in 2012.

(Also please don’t kill me for not properly citing photographs that I feature, I usually find them on the theatre’s website, are you happy?????)


This is not a comparison post by any means, but I just wanted to mention the funny history between myself, this play, and this theatre. The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) has a long and famous legacy for several things. Part of its more unfortunate reputation is being known for being a tad…ostentatious. For the past couple decades (give or take) the RSC’s shows use an over-the-top technical or set design,although the acting has a much better reputation. How is it able to constantly produce incredibly grand theatre, you ask? Well, it’s a government subsidized theatre, (hence the “royal”) so it already has a much higher leg up than most theatres in the U.K. Sometimes the best creations come with limitations, but if your limitations are too far away then you may lose sight of the original concept or meaning of your project. As a society that is worshiping more and more the pretty and shiny things of this world, it must be hard for marketers not to want to pander to this audience. As a designer,there a line where your design teeters on helping further the story, or distracting from the performance. Unfortunately I feel that the RSC’s designs may distract from the performance many times because they are too worried with keeping up with the pretty and shiny goldfishes of the world.

The concept of this show was based around the masques of the late 16th and early 17th century, hosted at court for Queen Elizabeth the 1st, James the 1st and other monarchies. These masques were highly elaborate in design and cost, and usually for only for one night’s performance! “In the court of James I, narrative elements of the masque became more significant. Plots were often on classical or allegorical themes, glorifying the royal or noble sponsor. At the end, the audience would join with the actors in a final dance.” There is a masque-like interlude written into The Tempest that scholars believe was influenced by the popular masque creators Ben Jonson and Indigo Jones (what a cool name, huh?) With the masque comes images of wealth, opulence, frivolity, and a overall explosion of life on stage. As a design concept, I think this works beautifully for a production, but as an acting reference? Not as strong. The only characters who fit into the world of masques are the two drunken fools Trinculo and Stefano, but they are merely secondary characters. I admit, I would’ve been a tad surprised if the great Prospero jumped out in a Pan-like outfit, but he would’ve been stickin’ to the concept! However I do applaud the RSC for sticking to this costume and lighting concept throughout the entire play. In Cymbeline and Two Noble Kinsmen the play scrambled around seeking a clear concept direction and it was incredibly distracting from the actual performances. Thank goodness the masque at the blessing of Ferdinand and Miranda’s engagement was a full-out masque. Complete with a line dance, opera singers, and dresses the fanned out and covered practically the entire stage. Their costumes glittered and shone in the light as the young lovers basked in the glow of this jovial scene. So as a design concept, I think it’s a great design, but I find it a very feeble and weak acting concept to try and sell to audiences. The set was a beautiful pair of broken walls from a ship that stretched up the entire walls to the ceiling. It reminded me of a cathedral because of its size and how the light cast broken shadows on the stage. It also reminded me of the claustrophobic and confining walls of a whale’s belly. Actors were able to walk among the wreckage on its many layers, popping in and out of breaks in the wall.

My second title of this post was “Performance #18: Sponsored by Intel.” This production was partially thanks to the technological gadgets and help of a team from Intel, who helped design and create their mighty projections. Like many of Hollywood’s biggest sci-fi/action blockbusters (Avatar, The Hobbit films, etc.), this production used physical recognition technology for the character of Ariel. Ariel is Prospero’s  supernatural servant who can fly, shape shift, and perform all kinds of magic. In this performance Ariel was roughly halfway split between digital and physical form. Although I preferred the physical presence of Ariel on stage, I appreciated the beautiful creations that the design team had made. There was a three-tier set of screens that could be lowered or raised from the ceiling throughout this show. These projection screens were best used for the drowning scenes and for the flight of Ariel. On either side of this tiered screen were cylinders that could lower whenever Ariel needed to be flying or floating in the air. Many colleagues of mine were bothered by the fact that they thought this production could have been higher tech, mainly due to the extreme hype sold by the theatre. Or, it could have used better advanced technology. There were slight lags in timing the movements of the mouth on the projection with the audio of the live actor, and some other problems with the projections. I will give them some slack because it is their first production with this technology, but they have been designing it for two years….sooo… I wanted Ariel to be all digital, or all physical. Because the two beings were so different in look, it created a continuity problem for me. Also, the actors were already having a hard enough time seeming connected to each other, so by making Ariel digital furthered the actors even more. One of my favorite technological aspects of this show was the floor. It was mirrored tiles that were covered in brown paint to look like cracked ground. Whenever light was shined on it, the floor looked like light was emanating from the ground. Sometimes the simpler “tricks” are more impressive, sorry Intel.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is quite a large space, with a total capacity around  1,040+ people, so I understand that it may be hard for actors to connect with the audience. I chose a photo from the stage’s point of view so the viewer could see how large this space actually is. However, no matter the space of the theatre, that does not mean that the actors cannot be connected with each other. I was utterly bored by the first act of the show because of my lack of empathy or interest in a single character. I casually awaited the technology to come in and save me from drowsing away, although several of my classmates had already fallen asleep. It seemed like the actors (and director, possibly) were using the technology as a crutch to cover their feeble relationship work with each other. The Tempest is an incredibly fun and magical show, and I felt neither of these things for a majority of the first act. Miranda is a young woman of 15 who has grown up on the wild island. Her encounters with other humans has been limited to her father and to a he-fish that I will not count as human social interaction. So tell me why Miranda casually sauntered out to discover the pretty young Prince Ferdinand and acted like she was meeting a long lost cousin at a family reunion? Miranda seemed more like the mature adult she was played by rather than the fresh young firecracker she’s known to be. I kept thinking


I guess the best way to describe their onstage relationships felt like I was sitting in on an early rehearsal, where the actors still weren’t very accommodated with each other and still a little awkward. But, no, this was not the case, quite the opposite in fact. I felt bad for the other actors, because the two fools were the ones who seemed (by audience reaction) connecting best with the audience. I generally tend to think that if the fools are stealing the show, then something is going wrong or someone is not doing their job. As much as I wanted to give a great big bear hug to papa Prospero (played by Simon Russell Beale), I did not feel the presence of power and command that I believe Prospero requires. If I were stranded on this island I would be more worried about the fish-man humanoid who could kill me rather than the lovable old man with a large stick and a cape. The relationship between Prospero and Ariel is a very beautiful one, in fact I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s best, but even when Prospero is sobbing and releasing Ariel, I felt NOTHING. Hey, maybe it’s me. Maybe I was so bored that I was detaching myself from the performance so that I could not feel bad if any true connection came into play. Alright, that one was harsh, but once again my expectations for the RSC were sadly dashed.

The second act was much better, almost as if the actors took a sigh and thought “Thank goodness it’s finally Act II!” because everyone was more relaxed and seemed to be enjoying the show more. The connections were still pretty weak, but Stefano and Caliban were honorable mentions for the most improved award of this performance. In the second half Caliban had some really touching moments when he speaks about his past, and his desire to regain his freedom and “his” island. In Prospero’s beautiful final speech, and some have said Shakespeare’s subtle retirement speech, I felt nothing. In fact, I kept telling myself to focus so that I could give this man a chance. Mr. Beale is a renowned actor, how dare I say this blasphemy about English stage royalty? Well, folks, I’m just re-hashing how my experience was. If this monologue touched you in an unimaginable way, well, congrats! I wish I could say the same, I really really wish I could. I kept thinking that the director was telling the actors “Okay, I like what you’re doing, but it’s really too much, so just bring it back a touch.” I can’t put “blame” on anyone, because one that is ridiculous, and two almost impossible that it was down to one person to make sure that each connection was very thin.

Once again my expectations for the Royal Shakespeare Company were disappointed, and I feel bad for those students who had never been there before. It is an important lesson that however incredible a legacy a place may have, it will not necessarily translate to every generation of actors at the theatre. Another lesson I learned was to never rely too heavily on technology to carry the weight of a production. It’s just unfortunate.


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