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William Shakespeare 
in the Age of 
Digitally Augmented Reality

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This time my Letter comes to you from Stratford upon Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. A new production of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest has been making news there and my wife and I made a pilgrimage to see it.
The acting and direction are superb, but what I want to tell you about is something else, something that has created excitement and debate.

body enhancingThis is a play in which both magical powers and quotidian political rivalries play their part. So too does love: romantic love of course, but also parental and filial affection. There are wonderful lines and heart moving scenes but famously it also invites spectacular special effects. There is the storm at sea, the magical isle, the presence of spirits – such as Ariel who can fly, become invisible, and change shape. The Royal Shakespeare Company have excelled themselves in this, using the latest ‘body-capture computer imagery’ to project moving images of actors playing spirits.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether this computer wizardry has enhanced the magic or distracted attention from the true play.
Do you know the story? The idea is this: Prospero, once Duke of Milan, has been marooned on an island, his title and lands stolen by his own brother. He rules this island with magical powers acquired by long years of study. At last, he has the opportunity for revenge over his brother and repossession of his dukedom: a ship draws near carrying the King of Naples, courtiers, and – significantly – the brother, the usurping Duke of Milan.


Using his occult powers, Prospero creates a tempest in which the ship founders and the company find themselves stranded on the island at Prospero’s mercy.
Among other themes, Shakespeare charts Prospero’s transformation as he moves from tyrannical rule over the creatures of the island and obsession with revenge to a mellowed state in which he is ready to grant freedom to his servants and forgiveness to his enemies. Our world today could use such transformative powers.
Shakespeare’s imagination is at full stretch as he explores how people respond to danger and isolation and – more importantly – to moral dilemmas and crises. The play opens with the storm, which tests the courage of all on board. Cast ashore on the island they face a bleak future. We witness rivalries and ambitions in which not one but two murders are planned. And, there is the wonder of love as Prospero’s daughter meets the first young man she has ever set eyes upon.the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207270.tmb-gal-670
There is also one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters: Caliban, described in the cast list as ‘a savage and deformed slave’. He can be played in many ways. There are post-colonial interpretations in which he stands for the first peoples of a newly colonised land. There are psychological interpretations and it is not hard to see him as a representation of the id in Freud’s writings.
If we view him through Prospero’s eyes he is clearly The Other, not Us. We might loath him or fear him. Prospero treats him with contempt – not without reason as Caliban once had designs on Prospero’s daughter. Or we might make the imaginative leap to see the world through his own eyes, as Prospero does finally, seeing in him the potential weaknesses of any human. Despite his debased nature, Shakespeare has given him one of the most beautiful speeches in the play. Try saying this without being thrilled:
     Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises, 
     Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. 
     Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
     Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices, 
     That if I then had waked after long sleep, 
     Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming 
     The clouds methought would open and show riches 
     Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked 

     I cried to dream again. 
It is a surprising play and leaves me wondering why this experienced playwright constructed it as he did. It opens with his most dramatic scene, the one with greatest opportunities for special effects: the storm at sea. One of the pleasures of going to any production of The Tempest is to see how the director and set designer handle this.
The RSC’s production triumphs: huge timbers suggest the ship, and the full suite of sound and light effects create the storm. Later, those timbers suggest the hills and woods of the island, mysterious and unsettling.
After such an opening scene a production could easily run downhill. Shakespeare however, introduced a masque towards the end, with music, dance, extravagant costume and the stately appearance of gods from Greek mythology. For the 17th century audience, this generated a new climax. The Stuart kings especially liked royal masques with their courtly display and heavy-handed symbolism about royal prerogatives. In the 21st century, the masque scene could be deadly dull.
This production solves the problem beautifully. It brings the masque to us with music and singing the equal of opera. It also deploys those same pioneering computer effects.
It is not easy to explain these. The RSC brought in a specialist company called The Imaginarium Studios. Their description of what they do leaves a lot to the imagination: the computerised capture of body images. Movements of the actor playing the spirit Ariel, for example, can be tracked and converted simultaneously into a computer avatar, which is projected onto wispy screens hanging above the stage. The audience sees Ariel metamorphosed into spirit shapes, now flying among the clouds, now imprisoned in a tree. This same 21st-century magic enriches the masque. It’s not perfect but it is impressive.

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207188.tmb-gal-670My feeling is that Shakespeare would have embraced the technology eagerly because of his company, The King’s Men, used all the tricks of the stage available at the time.
The Royal Shakespeare Company spent two years working on this with the experts.
In due course, other companies around the world will surely repeat it and improve on it.
Keep an eye open for developments!


All photographs, including the front wrapper, are by Topher Mcgrillis :The Royal Shakespeare Company