A modern version of a historic play

(CNN) – We’ve become accustomed to high production values at the Royal Shakespeare Company, frankly we expect it.  However this time, the RSC seems to have surpassed itself, almost psychedelically.

“In Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, we wanted to have a finale to the year and the tempest is Shakespeare’s last play, the last solely authored play and it requires extraordinary magical effects and we wanted to make it very special in this particular year,” said Gregory Doran.

Gregory Doran was alerted to something on YouTube.  A presentation by the technology giant, Intel, “And this big whale swam onto this huge screen behind the CEO’s head and then he said we know we can know we can do this, but what if we could do this!  And the whale swam through the screen and swam over the audience’s heads and I said that’s what I want for the Tempest!”

So the RSC set about embracing digital magic.  Capturing an actor’s movements with special cameras, so-called ‘ motion capture’ and they consulted an expert.

“It’s a sort of like a combination of theatre, video game and film making skills all coming together really. And it’s what we call, at the imaginarium, the birth of the next generation story-telling,” said Andy Serkis.

Many of the special effects were designed for one character the spirit, Ariel.  He gets a skin tight body suit, the kind used by actors in movies like X-men and is wired up with 17 sensors from head to toe.

So beyond the bank of computers a ghostly avatar of Ariel took shape.  We were given rare access to the final few days of rehearsal, to marvel a little and to eavesdrop.    This has been a two-year collaboration between the RSC, Intel and Imaginarium.

Ariel can shape shift in real time, before our very eyes and his avatar projected from the computer anywhere on stage.  At one moment a harpy part bird, part woman.

“The audience at times want the puppeteer to disappear and allow the puppet to have its own life and it’s really that same thinking really. You are kind of asking the audience to kind of suspend their disbelief for just long enough to come alive,” said Gregory Doran.

The human Ariel is always there, flitting in and out of the shadows and acting away, but it’s his avatar who is seen to tell the story of the shipwreck that brings Prospero’s enemies to him.  He’s ethereal almost vaporous, all the devils are here.  That said, the special effects remain in service of Shakespeare words.

The acting at key emotional moments, is always between flesh and blood players and them alone.