For the RSC’s Christmas season, they’ve partnered up with Intel to create a revolutionary production of the Tempest, which uses motion-capture to project digital avatars on stage in order to enhance the magic of the performance.
The production itself breaks boundaries with the innovative use of digital technology that heightens the production’s magic. The character of the sprite Ariel is played by Mark Quartley, who wears a specially created suit that mirrors his movements onto an avatar on stage. The Imaginarium Studio’s technology enables the character to morph into different avatars.
“The sensors are concealed within the suit,” Mark told me. “It means you don’t have to be aware of the technology. The costume is made out of this flexible lycra, it is a work of art and a work of engineering.” The skin tight suit allows Mark to move freely around the stage, and really get into the character. He said: “You get used to it very quickly, and I find it physically freeing. I would spend quite a lot of rehearsals in jeans and a t-shirt, and I didn’t realise how much that keeps you in the 21st century.”
Performing Shakespeare’s productions with clarity and characterisation is challenging enough, however Mark also has to think about every aspect of his movement, as it is projected so clearly on stage. After numerous rehearsals, the technology almost became second nature to Mark. He said: “The real benefit of the motion-capture technology is that it should just be replicating the performance, and the performance comes first.
The technology should just enhance the performance, but that said there were a few stumbles we came across, because Ariel has various avatars throughout the show that each presented their own set of different challenges to overcome. We figured out there were certain physical things that I could do that would lead to really interesting renders on the computer imagery, so it was a journey of discovery, but a lot of fun.”
There has been a lot of conversation recently about modernising Shakespeare, particularly with Emma Rice’s recent announcement of leaving the Globe, following a row over using innovative lighting. Whilst many argue Shakespeare should be kept to it’s roots, and performed traditionally, others are questioning why 400 years on we are not embracing experimentation. The RSC’s performance showcases why modernising Shakespeare with technology is successful. Mark explained: “I am thrilled because I feel like I have been such a beneficiary in amplifying Shakespeare with technology.
If it can encourage more people to get into Shakespeare, then surely it can only be a good thing. I feel like there is a place for everything in Shakespeare, it has already been done in so many different ways, and if we can start finding new ways of discovering his work, then all the better.”
“I think the beauty of Shakespeare is that people will be doing him in different ways for thousands of years to come. There will never be one definitive way of doing it – allow people’s imagination to fly.”
With the Globe and the RSC being so prestigious and renowned for performing high-quality Shakespeare, it is so important to embrace contemporary conventions and move theatre forward. “The RSC are a wonderfully creative powerhouse,” Mark expressed. “Set in a small town in Warwickshire, it is somewhere you wouldn’t expect to have all this cutting edge technology. But I just think that is amazing, that you can come to this theatre next to a canal and have 27 projectors and thousands of pounds worth of technology whirring around to try and create a magical island. I’m sure Shakespeare would really heartily approve.”
Aside from the importance of technology in the production, Ariel is a really interesting character to play. He is the spirit of the air, who was imprisioned after refusing to serve the witch and was then rescued by Prospero (Simon Russell Beale). He is enthusiastic in his tasks, observant and obedient, Mark explained how he interpreted the character: “I always start as if it has never been done before, so I just read the lines fresh and see what it says about my character and what my character says about other people.”
He also looked at the design, which obviously played a huge part in this particular production. “Although I was cast a long time ago, Imaginarium, the company that helped create the digital avatars had started working on it a year before that. So when we met them, there were certain ideas they had for Ariel that affected my interpretation,” he said.
The character of Ariel is magical, and this is portrayed through characterisation, movement and song. Mark sings some beautiful and mystical songs in the show, which appear effortless, despite not having done a lot of voice work before. “It is something that I’ve sort of avoided since I went to drama school,” he said. “Ariel is one of those parts where you do everything. It is an extraordinary language that he has, and in our production he sings three songs that use every faset of my range, because he goes way up into falsetto and right down into the lowest note that I can hit.”
Alongside the vocals, it is a very physical part as Mark plays around with the movement in order to fully encapsulate the role. “The designers have built this amazing ship that I get to climb up and down and move in and out of, so it is fair to say it stretched me a fair bit, but I’ve loved it. It has been a part to relish for sure,” he said.
Despite the regular rehearsals that would take place with the cast in the day, Mark would spend many evenings in another rehearsal room where they would have the motion-capture, working with the movement director Lucy Cullingford. “We would bring up different avatars and I would experiment with the movement,” Mark explained. “And then trying to marry that with the work that was already done on the play at large was a challenge. The danger was always going to be whether or not the technology would swamp the performance or whether it could enhance it.”
Mark has worked expansively in both theatre and television, but he thinks there is something really special about working with the RSC. “It is a privilege,” he said. “They have amazing facilities and there are so many talented, creative, hardworking people here. The cast alone are just excellent, working with someone like Simon Russell Beale, who is someone I’d watch when I was at drama school and was amazed by in various productions at the National.”
“It is all of a bit of a dream come true, I feel a bit like a kid that has won the competition on the back of a cereal packet.”
He talked about how the rehearsal process is so collaborative, and he feels like there are no limitations. “There is never a question of ‘no we can’t do that’. It is always a fact of if you come up with a good idea, then someone will try to make it work. Whether it is someone in the props department, wigs or make up, everyone wants to create excellence.”
On at the RSC until the 21st of January, and then opening at the Barbican in London on the 30th of June, information for the Tempest can be found here.