REVIEW: The Tempest. The RSC - Stratford.

A CRITIC once suggested that, by the time Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, he was "bored with real life, bored with drama...bored, in fact, with everything except poetical dreams".

Members of the audience at this latest, rather cutting-edge RSC production of The Tempest, thought to be the last play Shakespeare completed by himself, were anything but bored; and I was reminded how experimental Shakespeare was, to the very end of his writing career.

The Tempest famously contained elements of the costly court entertainment known as the masque. Anything might happen during a masque: from gods and goddesses descending from clouds to a real polar bear pulling a sleigh. Masques were fabulously expensive: a single night's entertainment would have cost around £2m in today's hard cash. The nobles of Shakespeare's day had mechanical seas and metal monsters, and today we have the wonders of intel, with real-time computerised effects, to bring the enduring magic to the RSC's stage.

The difference between the two distant ages does not lie with the intention to delight, but with the technology used to achieve the effects. The RSC and intel, to all intents and purposes, have re-invented the masque for the modern age, with this astonishing, landmark production.

It's worth banging on a little about the technology. It's certainly been a selling point: giving audiences the chance to see drowning men falling through the sea; allowing us to behold a tree imprisoning Ariel, and to see an immense harpy beating it's wings, to shame the three "men of sin". Ariel can fly or float on air - with the technology following every movement and command of the actor playing Ariel, Mark Quartley. It all sounds horribly complicated, perhaps; but it isn't really. The play's the thing. The play is still the thing; and the standard of acting was superb.

Simon Russell Beale was Prospero and, at first, so intense were some of his pauses, I wondered if he was struggling to recall his lines. But he was playing Prospero, most convincingly, as a man of immense power who is still uncertain of his motives. His Prospero is a hurt and ageing man, moving between benedictions and a desire for revenge. The play, ultimately, is about his salvation, as Shakespeare, rather than being tired of life, offers us a universal vision of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Every single actor on the stage - which was a kind of beach in the ribs of a ruined galleon - was beyond criticism for what was, perhaps, the finest RSC production I have witnessed.

Mark Quarterly was both sinister and touching as Ariel: a spirit in need of love and who, in the end, is shooed away by Prospero, as a man might shoo away a cat.

Miranda, played by Jenny Rainsford, had a crystal clear grace and presence, as the embodiment of pure wonder, although her relationship with Prospero, her father, was - necessarily and convincingly - sometimes tetchy and sometimes tender.

Joe Dixon as Caliban allowed his character to grow into dignity and self-knowledge; and Tony Jayawardena, as the drunken butler, Stephano, filled the stage with an act that mixed menace with pantomime camp.

Simon Trinder, as Trinculo the jester, was also a triumph, - and he wasn't above running into the audience to borrow a women's glasses and her programme.

I'm sure she got her programme back. This, after all, was a memorable, ground-breaking production and the programme is well worth keeping for that very reason.

The Tempest at the RSC will run until January 21.

Gary Bills-Geddes.