“More than any other Shakespeare play, there’s magic in ‘The Tempest,’ and I’ve desperately wanted there to be a sense of wonder in this play,” said Mark Quartley, the actor playing Ariel. “It’s thrilling to do it in live performance.”
The motion-capture process, in which Mr. Quartley’s movements are used to animate a digital creature, has been employed for years in film, most famously to inform the lifelike physical movements of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and for the title character in the 2005 remake of “King Kong.”
But adapting the process for theater has proved difficult, because live performance, by definition, happens in real time, meaning there is no opportunity for the postproduction editing that is generally used to perfect cinematic animation.
“We’ve always wanted to marry performance capture with the stage,” said Andy Serkis, the actor who worked as the body behind Gollum and Kong. Mr. Serkis became so enamored of motion capture that he helped found Imaginarium, and he is serving as a creative consultant on this “Tempest” production. “But there are so many risks involved. There’s no room for error.”
The show is running in Stratford-upon-Avon until Jan. 21 and will be presented onstage again at the Barbican Theater in London starting June 30. It will also be broadcast to cinemas beginning Jan. 11 in Britain and March 1 in the United States.
The spectacle is a sort of high-tech puppetry. As in “The Lion King” or “War Horse,” and long before those shows, in Japanese bunraku performances, the Ariel actor and the Ariel avatar are simultaneously visible to the audience — a form of theatrical transparency that Julie Taymor, the director of “The Lion King,” has called “the double event.”
Mr. Quartley speaks all the character’s lines and determines all of its motions, which, as a result, can vary from performance to performance. The avatar is deployed only when Ariel’s mind turns to magic: When he is having an emotionally fraught conversation with Prospero, that is played actor to actor, but when the talk turns to enchantment, the avatar appears.
“When my agent told me they were doing a new production of ‘The Tempest’ with an avatar, my immediate concern was that I’d be sitting in a back room somewhere moving, and I wasn’t sure how fulfilling that would be as an actor,” Mr. Quartley said.
Reassured that he would be onstage — that’s one way the Royal Shakespeare Company signals to the audience that it is not watching prerecorded video — he took the role, and now he relishes both the physical and technological challenge of making it work.
At each performance, Mr. Quartley wears a skintight Lycra suit, with 16 motion sensors zipped into the costume and one embedded in his wig. They wirelessly transmit the coordinates of his body parts to computers that transform the data into the avatar projected onto screens moving over the stage. The costume must be recalibrated five or six times during each show, because if a sensor is out of place, as happens from time to time, the avatar can look contorted.
At its best, the motion capture is eye-popping. For the harpy scene, Mr. Quartley wears headgear allowing the digital creature to mimic the movement of his face, and he has learned to accentuate lines for dramatic effect. And there is other technological innovation seeded throughout the production — 26 tracking cameras around the theater follow the movement of actors so that, for example, a pack of hounds can be projected onto hand-held drums held by dancers. In a masque scene, one goddess wears a fiber-optic fabric dress illuminated by LEDs, and another has a dress with electroluminescent cable wire; a banquet table has a projected feast, and the stage floor is a polycarbonate that is hand-painted to look veiny and is lit from below.
“It allows a High Church type of extravagance — it’s just breathtakingly beautiful,” said Simon Russell Beale, the great British actor, who played Ariel at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1993 and who is Prospero in this production. Mr. Russell Beale’s Ariel is remembered for a low-tech spectacle — his was a cold and angry spirit, who spat on Prospero upon being set free at play’s end.
Mr. Russell Beale said that given the magic coursing through this play, the use of technology makes sense. “As an intellectual argument, it’s pretty watertight,” he said. “I still believe the most important bit is the human interaction, but if that can be enhanced by technological means, then great.”
The timing is intriguing. Just as the Royal Shakespeare Company is experimenting with the most newfangled technology, Shakespeare’s Globe, about two hours south in London, is moving in the opposite direction, abruptly parting with its new artistic director, Emma Rice, citing such factors as her embrace of modern lighting.
Critics have generally embraced the Royal Shakespeare Company effort. The visuals, Dominic Cavendish wrote in The Telegraph, “are, true to the hype, of a breathtaking order.” But not all were persuaded. “While the show offers a bonanza night for ardent techies, I see its use of advanced technology as a one-off experiment rather than a signpost to the future,” Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian.
“If you know the play very well, you will feel, maybe, that the technology doesn’t give you a great deal,” said Stephen Brimson Lewis, the director of design for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “But if you don’t know the play, it’s fascinating how much the back story seems to work, and, particularly with younger audiences, that seems to have paid dividends.”
The project was born with a plea. Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was looking for a final play to close out 2016, which was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and settled upon “The Tempest,” which tells the story of a deposed duke (Prospero), stranded on an island with his daughter, who uses his “rough magic” to bring about a life-changing reckoning with the men who had wronged him.
Mr. Doran, noting that there is a masque within “The Tempest ” and that the most up-to-date special effects were often deployed in Jacobean masques, asked his staff to think about what effects Shakespeare might have employed if he were alive today. Sarah Ellis, the company’s director of digital development, sent him a video of an augmented reality leviathan, appearing to swim over an audience, that Intel demonstrated at International CES, the giant consumer electronics trade show, in 2014.
“That’s it,” Mr. Doran recalled thinking. “That’s what I want.”
And then there was a bit of crazy luck. Ms. Ellis didn’t know anyone at Intel, so she just wrote to a generic address she found on the contact page on the company’s website — the kind of address one assumes will go nowhere. The email was forwarded to Intel’s research director, Tawny Schlieski, who, improbably, had been a college theater minor.
Intel, best known as a maker of computer chips, has been trying to change perceptions of its brand by taking on high-visibility projects in entertainment, music, gaming and sports. The company had worked on the Super Bowl (360-degree replay), the Grammys (digital skin projections for Lady Gaga), New York Fashion Week (an interactive dress with mechanical arms) and the X Games. The prestige of the Royal Shakespeare Company was appealing.
Intel will not say what it has spent on the theater production, but it is clearly a significant investment. The technology took two years to debate and develop; the company has installed racks of video servers in the stage-right wing — two sets, in case one crashes — as well as 27 high-definition tracking projectors. Ariel’s avatar is often projected onto a giant cylinder that designers call “the cloud” — a tube that surrounds a smoke machine and is wrapped in midge mesh; other projections are on mesh curtains, called a vortex, that move over the stage.
A technician is required to operate the video system during each show, plus one to oversee the motion capture, and one in the control room at a souped-up theatrical lighting board.
“We’ve streamlined this in a way that I’m certain other theater companies can pick it up and try to outdo us,” Ms. Schlieski said. “The more familiar you are with a tool, the more interesting things you can do with it.”
Skeptics have wondered about the collaboration. “It’s a form of research and development by a commercial interest, which is different from theatrical experimentation,” said Christie Carson, a professor of Shakespeare and performance at Royal Holloway and an editor of the book “Shakespeare and the Digital World.” “It’s industrializing the creative process.”
Ms. Carson said she had been more impressed by other uses of technology in Shakespeare productions — a “Henry V” at the National Theater in which the monarch’s speeches were delivered on television screens and a “Julius Caesar” at the Royal Shakespeare Company with filmed mob scenes. She is a fan, too, of other experiments from the company, including “Such Tweet Sorrow,” a six-actor, five-week retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” over Twitter, and “Midsummer Night’s Dreaming,” a three-day, real-time, online production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
But Mr. Doran has no misgivings. “They have their own agenda of how they want to extend and explore and advertise their technology,” he said of Intel. “But it’s serving our ends perfectly — we’ve used the technology to enhance the play, and we feel very proud of that.”
He is already thinking about how the technology can be applied to other plays.
“Theater has always embraced new technology — we go with any new idea, and we try to find out what it can do and what it can’t do,” Mr. Doran said. “It’s the words that excite you. The rest is just a way of letting people in.”