There have been quite a few theatrical responses to the Coronavirus lockdown, including daily recitals by actors, recordings made by performers at home and, most notably, the rebroadcast of full-scale shows originally livestreamed from venues such as the NT. This is a bit different. For one thing, it is not free (you have to book your ticket) and, for another, it promises an ‘interactive’ experience. In fact, I can’t remember being so nervous before a show since the last time I acted in one. It’s not just the idea that you could be involved from your armchair, but also the sheer technological challenge, the idea that something could go fundamentally wrong, the way it does every now and again when we log on.
Through means of Zoom, Head of Creation Theatre, Lucy Askew, gradually introduces us as to how the hour is to work, what buttons we should press and what our role should be, as tiny pictures of over a hundred other audience members appear on the top of our screens. Then it’s off to a party on the boat of the start of the play to get to know the characters and relax, complete with some rather stilted questions from the public (to Trinculo ‘Tell us a joke’). So far so planted and so linguistically not Shakespeare.
It’s only when we see Prospero, played by a young, bearded Simon Spencer-Hyde, that we realise the brilliant conceit at the heart of the production: against a backdrop of TV screens, holding a microphone (part politician, part game show host, part DJ), it is totally logical that he should use this Twenty-First Century medium to engineer the shipwreck, control the others and realise his revenge against his brother Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan. So we can settle down to the action on the island, seeing pre-recorded Shakespearean segments against garish computer backdrops, with only one actor at a time on screen.
How, then, can this be interactive? Enter Itxaso Moreno’s scary Ariel, almost always with her painted face right up against the camera, telling us to create or provoke the next scene. She asks us to clap our hands and click our fingers to make the storm and the rain. And then you see and hear snippets of the audience doing just that, usually in miniature and occasionally full screen, sitting at a desk or on a settee. She asks us to make bird voices and we do, enthusiastically. Or sing the characters to sleep and there are delightful close-ups of families singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Meanwhile, the acting – always focused on one individual at a time – is a fascinating concentration of Shakespeare’s play. Rhodri Lewis’s Trinculo may be drunken Welsh caricature, but he develops humanity as he hands a bottle to Paul (P.K.) Taylor’s sinister Caliban across screens. The gizmos constantly intrude: the Zoom name at the bottom is the characters’ so we know who we are looking at, yet for Ryan Duncan’s Ferdinand it is ‘F3RDY_B4BY’. We wake the characters up by shaking laptop screens. At the request of Alonso (a toffish Al Barclay), we imitate the animals of the wild with fluffy toys or bestial sounds.
By the time Prospero wraps the plot up with forgiveness, the communal experience is over – ‘Our revels are now ended’ – and we realise we have been part of something quite special and clever. The actors each reveal they have been performing on their own, in their living rooms, by taking down their minimal scenery (‘These our actors, / […] were all spirits, and / Are melted into air’). In ten years time, or perhaps less, the jittery images and simplified sound may well appear to have been primitive and awkward. But just as you cannot dismiss silent film as a mere prelude to talkies, this is an experience we should embrace. Its very clunkiness (what Prospero calls ‘rough magic’) is its self-conscious strong point, a new genre indeed.