The new production of The Tempest at the RSC in Stratford sees Shakespeare’s last play pushing at the boundaries of 21st century technology. The production features cutting edge live performance capture, provided by the Imaginarium Studios and Intel, to create animated versions of the sprite Ariel live on stage.
“The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play, it’s a play that’s got themes of innovation, themes of magic, themes of wonder,” says Sarah Ellis, head of digital at the RSC. “As a final production for the RSC in his anniversary year – 400 years after his death – it seemed really appropriate to look at The Tempest, both at the end of 2016 but also looking at the future.”
The idea to bring digital technology into the production first came from RSC artistic director Gregory Doran, who was inspired by the masque interlude in The Tempest, and wondered how Shakespeare, who was always experimenting with stage effects and the technologies of the time, would have used tech in the theatre if he was working today.
This led Ellis and the RSC to contact Intel and in turn Imaginarium Studios. “We looked at what a digital character would look like and could we perform Ariel in real time, digitally,” she says. “Then very quickly we contacted the Imaginarium Studios, for their creative expertise around performance capture and particularly Andy Serkis’ background in theatre. That evolved into a conversation about what we could do with that character on stage. It’s really has been a genuine convergence of everyone’s strengths and expertise.”
It was a different type of project for the Imaginarium Studios. “We are used to doing feature films, video games, music videos … but never before had we done something for the theatre,” says Ben Lumsden, head of studio at the Imaginarium. “Andy Serkis, our co-founder, comes from a theatrical background so prior to Gollum he was a big theatre actor and considers it his home. He’s always wanted to do something with performance capture within the theatrical space but frankly we hadn’t had the opportunity. And I’d say the technology wasn’t really there yet, the capability to do something in a robust way.”
For the RSC production, Imaginarium designed a character for Ariel based on the physique of the actor playing the sprite, Mark Quartley. The team then brought it to life using recently developed game engine technology, which allows Quartley to control the character in real time. “We built a realistic version of Mark and then we abstracted from there in order to be more stylised,” explains Lumsden. “That, coupled with the game engine technology, enabled us to do really cool effects … we can set him on fire at the push of a button, we can change him from blue to red at the push of a button.”
The performance from Quartley also showcases facial real time tracking technology for the first time, allowing him to control both the body of the digital character but also its facial expressions. This will be particularly used in a section of the play where Ariel appears as a harpy. “There’s going to be a camera trained on Mark’s face for the harpy sequence,” says Lumsden. “He’s got quite a long monologue and he’s going to be live driving the body of the harpy with his body, but he’s also going to be live driving the face of the harpy … we’re going to be demoing that technology to the world.”
The team at Imaginarium has been able to integrate the technology into the lighting desk at the theatre, where it can be controlled. “So essentially you can, using an analogue fader, ramp up the colour or change his position. It’s all in real time, so you can do it via the lighting console,” says Lumsden.
The seamless interlinking of the worlds of tech and theatre was important to get right. “The biggest challenge for us was to make sure that the worlds integrated correctly,” Lumsden continues. “Us with our film background and games background, and the RSC with their theatre background, we had to make sure it meshed.”
It was also important that the tech did not take over the production, which, with Simon Russell Beale playing Prospero, has many draws for an audience beyond any digital tricks. “We are dialing down as opposed to dialing up,” says Lumsden. “That was Greg’s thing from the off. He was always keen for the technology to support – yes, it can be sensational at times, especially as there’s the Elizabethan masque in there, which is why he wanted the technology in the first place, to make a real spectacle.
“But it has to be a supporting part, you don’t want it to be all shiny bells and whistles and everyone just looking at the technology. It’s all got to be about the heart and soul of the performance, and that totally chimes with what we’re about. We’re all about storytelling and narrative at our heart, we just happen to have an interesting technology that makes us unique.”
In the end, the team achieved all their ambitions for the project, and more. “We’ve taken it beyond our expectations,” says Ellis. “At the beginning of our process two years ago, to now what we can do, the technology’s evolved so quickly. Because we’ve kept ourselves open, and because we’ve worked within a theatrical process, we’ve not had to lock ourselves down very early, we’ve been able to R&D and process and workshop what you can do with the technology.
“I think the challenges have been more about language – using the same language with each other because we all come from different backgrounds, so how can we create a genuine sense of collaboration, and how we can be respectful of that. The challenges have been understanding what’s possible to do quickly and what will take longer, and when you understand that, you can do brilliant things.”
And while the technology that’s been showcased here may seem a purely 21st century spectacle, Ellis points out that this is only in keeping with what the theatre has been doing for hundreds of years.
“I think theatre’s always had a relationship with technology,” Ellis continues. “What’s interesting is when we don’t call it technology anymore. So candlelight was a technology in theatre, ship’s rigging has been used as a technology in theatre, the electric light has been a technology in theatre … it assimilates and it doesn’t become an ‘other’ anymore. With the digital age we’re in, I think that those are just technologies that are new tools for us with theatre. So with Shakespeare we’re really lucky, we’ve got a toolkit of 400 years for us to play with and to help bring those productions alive on stage.”
The Tempest, in collaboration with Intel and in association with the Imaginarium Studios, is on at the RSC in Stratford until January 21; rsc.org.uk