Inspired by Shakespeare's 400th anniversary, Intel is working with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and The Imaginarium Studios to create a cutting-edge production, using performance capture technology to render an animated character live on the stage in real time.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death. It would be a lie to say that the legacy of humanity's most famous playwright has remained untouched since then—countless directors and writers, including auteurs as idiosyncratic as Baz Luhrmann and Derek Jarman, have attempted to put their own spin on his works.
But what would it do for theatre's popularity if its oldest, most famous works could be twinned with the latest, most spectacular technology? The production of The Tempest currently showing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon couldn't have a more royal setting, but this version marks the first time a Shakespeare character has been portrayed by a digital avatar, rendered live and in real time alongside human actors. To pull it off, the RSC paired up with Andy Serkis' Imaginarium Studios and a team from Intel led by research scientist, Tawny Schlieski.
"Back in January 2014, with one of my partners in the US, we flew a giant whale off the stage and around the audience during an Intel keynote," says Schlieski, explaining how the production she's spearheaded alongside RSC director Gregory Doran has its origins in the augmented-reality flight of a digital whale named Leviathan. The RSC saw it and wanted it translated onto their stage.
The choice of play isn't accidental—of all Shakespeare's works, it's the one that through the ages has most lent itself to the use of special effects. The way that Ariel—a fiery, airborne magical sprite who produces many of the play's most thrilling moments—is brought to life using performance-capture technology feels like a rally point for theatre: no other major classical production has used this tech before.
"The year 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death," explains Sarah Ellis, head of digital development at the RSC. "It seems really important at the end of such a momentous year for us to look at the past and the present but also the future." It's the kind of thing audiences are used to seeing on blockbuster movie screens, but perhaps this signals the future of theatre, an audience surrounded by infinite digital possibilities.
During the play's preview screenings a group of uniformed teenage schoolboys sat in a row. Schlieski says, "When you see that, you're like, 'That's gonna be a problem!' I thought they might get distracted, loud, noisy, fidgety. But they didn't. They were riveted. They sat, literally on the edge of their seats, and joined in with the standing ovation after. I was so encouraged."
Key to producing that kind of response in audiences is the motion-capture suit, provided by Imaginarium and worn by actor Mark Quartley. The suit monitors his movements and they in turn dictate the movement of Ariel as he is projected on to the screen. During a long training process, Quartley figured out how to make the sprite fly, plead, terrify, torment, and, as Schlieski puts it, "split apart into all these little shapes, and he's singing, and I think in that moment the avatar really helps capture the unbound joy that Ariel is expressing." The techniques are already winning acclaim from critics in the British press for tech's ability to turn Shakespeare's plays into a new kind of spectacle.
The play — widely believed to be the last that Shakespeare wrote alone — is itself the tale of an elderly man named Prospero's struggle to secure the life prospects of his daughter, Miranda — to secure his legacy. It seems absurd to suggest that we might abandon all interest in Shakespeare if the people charged with putting on his work don't keep up-to-date with the latest technological advancements; his popularity does not depend utterly on a motion-capture suit.
"Shakespeare possessed a remarkable imagination that was really grounded in human experience," explains Schlieski. "At its core, The Tempest is about a man getting older, facing his own mortality, and thinking about what he wants for his daughter. What is his relationship with the people he has been in conflict with throughout his life? I think that's not a story which is particularly bound to an Elizabethan timeframe – it's something we all have to master as we approach the sunset, and figure out: What is the legacy that we want to leave behind?"
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To learn more about the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's run of The Tempest click here.