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How would Shakespeare use technology to stage The Tempest?

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

A little over four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, widely considered to be one of his greatest works. This November, the Royal Shakespeare Company will put on its most daring version of the play yet, the first to feature an animated character — Ariel the sprite — performing live on Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous stage.

Shakespeare always meant The Tempest to be a spectacle.

“Fine costumes, varied music and the appropriate use of props and visual effects are required by this challenging play,” the RSC explains. The Folio’s opening stage direction requests: ‘A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning’ to create the play’s signature storm.

How would Shakespeare stage The Tempest if he were alive today?

“The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play,” says Sarah Ellis, Head of Digital Development at the RSC, “and 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his death. It seems really important at the end of such a momentous year for us to look at not only the past and the present [of The Tempest] but also the future.”

So RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran set Ellis a challenge. If Shakespeare was alive today, what technology would he be exploring? More importantly, what might a 21st century version of the play look like?

What Ellis came up with was a video of a flying whale.

“Sarah sent me the Leviathan clip on YouTube,” remembers Doran, citing the augmented reality demonstration by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at CES 2014. “And when I saw the Leviathan swim across the screens and then, apparently, swim through the screens and over the audience’s heads, I said: that’s what I want for The Tempest.”

Ellis contacted Intel and together with The Imaginarium, the performance capture studio co-founded by actor Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish, the RSC began to explore what might be technologically possible in a modern stage production.

The Tempest calls for spectacle from the very first moment,” says Gregory Doran. “It gets the audience to imagine, in the very first scene, they are in the middle of a ship wrecking at sea. It then has a spirit [Ariel] who can apparently fly through the air and dive into the earth and swim to the bottom of the sea.”

As it turns out, Intel technology would be key to realising Doran’s vision for the play.

More than that, Ariel takes several fantastic forms during the play, including a harpy. “We are using particle technology for that,” says Doran, “and creating a flock of birds, which then come together and transform into the harpy. I would never in a million years have thought I would be able to use that kind of effect live on stage.”

It’s just one of many astonishing visual effects that the collaboration between the RSC, Intel and The Imaginarium is bringing to the production.

“[The Tempest has] been performed by theatre companies for the last 400 years,” says Tawny Schlieski, Director of Desktop Research at Intel. “It was Shakespeare’s summer blockbuster and has always been a vehicle for the latest and greatest technologies. To have a truly magical character who is not human — and in the text it was never meant to be a human — has never been done before.”

Despite the enormous technical and logistical challenges of getting cutting-edge computing technology to work on the stage, Gregory Doran is excited by its potential.

“I have seen The Tempest many times,” he said. “But I’ve never really felt that I had seen a production that really took my breath away and me wonder ‘how did they do that?’

“I’m hoping [this production] will attract a new audience who otherwise might have said ‘oh I don’t want to go and see a Shakespeare play, but I’d like to see this one.’ I’m hoping it will be like that. I think it could work on both sides of introducing people to Shakespeare and fulfilling a desire for something new and something spectacular.”

Editor’s Note: In this Experience Amazing series, iQ explores how computer technology inside is enabling incredible experiences outside. We look at how computer technology powers new experiences and discoveries in science, the maker movement, fashion, sports and entertainment. To learn more about the tech behind these stories, visit Experience Amazing.

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