The lights dim. The audience hush. “Approach, my Ariel, come,” says Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero and the magic of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest begins.
Mark Quartley’s mischievous spirit appears bright in the darkness, a fantastic figure of light floating high above on thin gauze sheets, walking, twisting, turning, flying, even bursting into digital flames.
The actor himself stalks the stage wearing a performance capture suit that uses an array of sensors to track his movements. Intel-powered technology maps all of this sensor data onto a digital ‘avatar’, rendering it in Unreal Engine, the software behind video games such as Crackdown 3 and Gears of War 4.
More Intel technology then takes all this information and feeds it to a string of digital projectors arranged throughout the theatre. These projectors don’t just beam the digital version of Ariel onto the stage, they display The Tempest’s other eye-catching special effects too.
The Tempest calls for a visual spectacle from the very first moment.
“Ariel boasts that he can burst into flame, split into three and ride on the curled clouds…” explains the play’s director and RSC Artistic Director, Gregory Doran. “[He] then turns into a figure of a harpy and makes a magical banquet appear and disappear. There’s also another bit of magic where the three goddesses — Iris, Juno and Ceres — arrive on high to bless the wedding. It makes a lot of demands on any creative team who are going to tackle the play.”
So the RSC, working together with The Imaginarium Studios and Intel, have created something more visually spectacular than anything that has gone before.
“We are creating, for the first time on stage, real-time live facial-performance capture,” says award-winning actor and co-founder of The Imaginarium Studios Andy Serkis. “That is quite an extraordinary leap forward.” In fact, this high-tech staging, with its groundbreaking avatar and its dazzling projections is arguably a turning point for live theatre. It is a play that aims to match the magic of Shakespeare’s imagination.
Don’t worry if you missed it the first time around… After its successful debut at Stratford last year, the critically-acclaimed production is now at London’s Barbican Centre for a 2017 run (30 June to 18 August).
It’s no simple switch. The technology behind the groundbreaking 2016 performance was designed for the 1,018-seat Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a ‘thrust’ stage where the audience sits on three sides. The Barbican’s 1,156-seat ‘proscenium’ stage is a more traditional theatre layout. The audience sits on one side, viewing the action through the frame of a huge arch.
“Our production teams have been in the Barbican Theatre over the past few weeks loading in the set, setting up lights, sound, video projection and integrating the new technologies which will bring the digital character of Ariel alive in this performance into the space,” explains Sarah Ellis, Director of Digital Development at the RSC.
“Because the Barbican stage is wider, the positioning and distance of the motion capture cameras is greater, so there have been slight adjustments on their positioning to ensure the experience is just as good as in Stratford.”
According to Ellis, the core digital design and projection of Ariel have stayed the same. What has changed, however, is the knowledge that the RSC has gained from the Stratford run.
“We’ve learnt so much throughout the whole collaboration with Intel and hope we have shared our expertise in theatre making and live storytelling too. What we thought was possible two years ago has exceeded our expectations and through this collaboration we have brought new technologies into the theatre, making a tool kit which we can take further in the future.”
Director Gregory Doran wanted to create a production of The Tempest that took people’s breath away and the groundbreaking avatar technology, developed over a period of two years, has been instrumental in achieving that aim.
More than that, Doran wanted to make Shakespeare’s final play, written between 1610 and 1611, accessible to a 21st century audience.
The question is: did he succeed?
Improved and refined for the Barbican, this production of The Tempest is theatre, reimagined.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest, directed by Gregory Doran, and using Intel technology and performance capture from The Imaginarium Studios, will play in the Barbican Theatre from 30 June – 18 August 2017. For more information, click here.