Shakespeare and the machines


Here’s a review of the RSC’s production of The Tempest with Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Through a combination of editorial tightening and big claims (I’m saying Shakespeare’s last play was a masque, not a drama) I make it appear here as though two fully grown polar bears once starred in its production. Please no one correct me: with a following wind this nonsense could become canonical.

for New Scientist, 21 November 2016 

It should come as no surprise that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s projector and motion-capture-enhanced new production of Shakespeare’s last play is a triumph. For one thing, The Tempest is actually not a play: it is a masque, an almost-forgotten dramatic form that was contrived to blow millions (literally, if you convert into today’s currency) on effects-heavy entertainment meant for royalty and a few favoured hangers-on.

James I got his two fully grown pet polar bears involved in one memorable production; modern audiences get actor Mark Quartley as Ariel in a motion-capture extravaganza. The production uses an impressive array of sculpted net curtains as screens on which the serviceable sprite, though a real-enough presence on stage, also flies, dances, finds himself trapped in a tree, transforms into a harpy, and more or less realises every passing fancy about him that Shakespeare ever thought to put to pen.

There is no attempt to hide Quartley, who is also on stage while rigged up in motion-capture kit, rather like those puppeteers who don’t attempt to hide themselves during their performance.

The show is the fruit of a two-year collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), IT company Intel and The Imaginarium Studios – a performance-capture house co-founded by actor Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings film series.

The results are impressive but not seamless. When Quartley dances, Ariel flies. When he speaks or sings, Ariel’s bad lip-synching suggests the buggier corners of YouTube. Never mind: there are 200,000 files running at once to bring this illusion to life, and anyone who knows anything about the technology will be rightly astounded that the sprite responds in real time at all. Much of the two-year collaboration was spent turning a post-production technology into something robust enough for stage use. It is a tremendous, if hidden, achievement.

More seriously – though this is hardly a criticism – The Tempest is the first outing for a form of theatre that is still looking for its grammar. The performance’s game-engine-driven Ariel is shown from a floating, swooping viewpoint, sometimes from above, sometimes from below, sometimes crash-zooming towards us and in the next instant hurtling away – to not much emotional effect, it has to be said.

No one’s doing anything wrong here: we simply don’t know how to read mood into these images, any more than we knew how, at the beginning of cinema, to read the cuts between images. Stephen Brimson Lewis is the RSC’s director of design and his throw-everything-at-it approach here is exactly the right one. If The Tempest is a mess at times, it’s a glorious mess, and one from which future productions can learn.

Simon Russell Beale is Prospero, gamely preparing to be upstaged in journalistic copy, but never, ever on stage. Beale’s is a moving, mesmerising performance, full of rage and danger, though his nice line in bathos keeps him anchored in a show that’s played predominantly for comedy, manufactured stage business and some groan-inducing visual puns.

It’s hard to imagine actual plays benefiting from this up-to-the-minute son et lumière. But The Tempest, and the masque form as a whole, is far closer to opera than to drama, and that, I suspect, is where this technology will find a home.

Meanwhile – and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this – budding playwrights might seriously consider writing masques.

The digital uncanny comes to Manchester’s International Festival


Visiting the Manchester International Festival for New Scientist, 10 July 2015

In a screening room in Manchester Art Gallery, the 1.5-metre-high shaven head of a white male in his mid-30s looms over the audience. His lips tremble. His eyes are moist and evasive. The star of Ed Atkins’s installation Performance Capture mumbles: “It often felt, to me, like my, um, body – its potential to pronounce itself, to perform and embody the possessive singular, in all its abjectly encumbered ways – is not ‘this’…”

He speaks without stopping, for hours. He is never very coherent – a condition brought on, perhaps, by the busy, bafflingly overconnected medium in which he lives. He is only digital, after all.

Don’t let the detail fool you: his stubble, day by day more visible; the bags that darken, hour by hour, under his eyes; the burst capillaries. The man is dead, as only a man who has never lived can be dead. “Something that can suffer without suffering, perform without performance, and be without being,” says Atkins.

Next door, in a room humming with half a million pounds’ worth of servers, modellers from the Manchester animation house Studio Distract work around the clock to make the head real. They will not succeed. “The technology’s failure is our victory,” says Atkins, whose international career has spiralled since he graduated from the Slade School of Art in 2009.

And next to the render farm, a steady stream of visitors arrive to have their performances captured with a 3D camera. Over the course of the festival, 104 people will each deliver a one-minute performance, reciting an addled, sometimes conspicuously nasty monologue composed by Atkins. Software will reduce and abstract their performances so that in the end, nothing of them will remain except their gestures, expressions and intonation. The head will replicate these faithfully. Bjork’s scowl. Damon Albarn’s smile. (The festival’s A-listers are all queuing up to be rendered.) Also the volunteer who hands out programmes in front of the gallery. Also the cleaner. “It’s a concentration, an essentialising,” says Atkins. “The essence that appears at the end requires a murder, more or less.”

Atkins imagines digital media as a realm of the dead. Damon Albarn and the makers of the new musical, at the Palace Theatre, disagree. The digital for them is Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, and Aly (the lead character, and a strong performance by Lois Chimimba) is swiftly dispatched there, sucked in through the glass maw of her mobile phone. (The conceit is a good one: Lewis Carroll did, after all, once try to buy the forerunner of the modern computer from Charles Babbage.) Alas, Aly’s reports from are hardly more coherent than those that Atkins’s head delivers from Hell, not least because of a script that reduces Wonderland’s polymorphous perversity – Carroll’s Alice could and did become whatever she wished – into something wearyingly close to a school counselling session.

Like, Mark Simpson’s oratorio The Immortal has a lot to say about wish fulfilment, and like Performance Capture, it has a great deal to do with death. Also, in an odd way, it shares with those other festival commissions a fascination with the digital uncanny – in this case of the early 1900s.

Half a century after its publication, society was still was reeling from the blow of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which dislodged our species from any privileged space in nature, and corroded any easy belief in divine providence. In 1901, Frederic Myers, president of the Society of Psychical Research, died. Some years later, mediums in Britain, the US and India all reported receiving spirit messages from him.

Simpson, a 26-year-old clarinettist whose extraordinary career has landed him the role of Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic, brilliantly evokes the fear of new technology at the turn of the 20th century. Together, the orchestra, the Manchester Chamber Choir and chamber choir EXAUDI recreate in frankly terrifying musical terms a world of invisible rays, radio and telegraphy – media through which it was sometimes supposed that the afterlife might be accessed. Across it all Myers himself, channelled by baritone Mark Stone, expresses, in narrow chromatic runs and glissandi laden with horror, the anguish of a man whose life, spent grieving a long dead sweetheart has convinced him that the material world is insufficient.

Manchester is deep in a programme of regeneration as fundamental and iconoclastic as any in the UK since the second world war. Whole vistas rise and vanish, streets disappear, unexpected sightlines emerge. It is an uncanny place, and the festival’s major commissions this year all acknowledge the fact. In The Skriker, Caryl Churchill’s malign, eponymous character cracks free of her hidden realm to entrap two sisters; Reggie “Roc” Gray’s shamanic troupe of flex dancers contort themselves into impossible avian shapes, the better to accommodate their human agony. This year’s festival is rich and strange: every new work has made a highway for faerie.

Forced entry


Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times

Michelle Terry in Privacy. Image swiped from The Times.

James Graham (@mrJamesGraham) writes plays for fringe venues that quickly transfer to huge auditoriums. This House, which began life in 2012 in the Cottesloe Theatre in London, sold out the flagship Olivier when it moved. Will something similar happen to Privacy, James’s almost-autobiographical journey through the internet? Probably. The version I saw at London’s Donmar Warehouse was witty, very accessible (ideal for school trips and citizenship classes), and turns the internet in general – and social media in particular – into a sort of politically chilling stage magic act. Right now the core of the piece – the disintegration of a personality when it’s continually second-guessed by all-seeing but unthinking machines – lies buried under a lot of stage business. (Much is made of a super-secret dramatic reversal that does not work at all.) But James means to keep the play abreast of current events so there’ll be plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles. Here’s the booking page, if you’re tempted: Privacy deserves a public.