BWW Interview: Mark Quartley Talks Motion Capture In THE TEMPEST
Mark Quartley's previous work includes Written on the Heart and Measure for Measure for the RSC, Ghosts at Rose Theatre Kingston, and TV series Hoff the Record. His latest challenge is a motion-capture Ariel in the RSC's ground-breaking production of The Tempest - created with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios - currently playing at the Barbican.
What was the first play you saw?
My dad was a teacher in Oxford, so we would go to Stratford, and actually I do remember when I was really young seeing The Tempest - with Malcolm Storry as Prospero, Geff Francis as Caliban and Kananu Kirimi as Ariel. We were probably watching it from the gods, but as with most people I fell in love with the magic of the play. It's just thrilling - otherworldly and fantastical.
Did you act a lot at school?
I did a fair bit at school, and I was a member of the National Youth Music Theatre. I've never really thought of myself as a musical theatre performer, but it was amazing training and a great place to meet people from all round the country and different walks of life.
I then read philosophy at university - my dad, as a teacher, was keen I got a proper degree! I wanted to carry on my education too. But I think I always knew that I at least wanted to pursue this passion, even if it's a hard thing to make a career out of, so I applied for drama schools and had the great privilege of training at RADA. I definitely recommend drama school - if you want to do something for the rest of your life, you wouldn't think anything of three years' training, and it's the same for acting.
What was your first response to this idea of motion capture?
I had no knowledge of motion capture other than seeing the odd behind-the-scenes video of Andy Serkis as Gollum, and there was a video on the RSC website showing another actor playing around with the very early avatars they created. My initial assumption was that I'd be playing the part from backstage - the Ariel avatar on all the time and the actor hidden away.
Then I met Greg Doran, who assured me it wouldn't be like that. He compared it with puppetry, like War Horse, which we love because we're investing in the puppet but also in the puppeteer. I'd worked with Greg before and I trust him implicitly, so I didn't worry that I'd be playing second fiddle to the technology.
How long did you have to work on it?
Luckily lots of clever people had been developing this for about two years with Intel and Imaginarium, so they already had plenty of stuff that I could play with. My first meeting was maybe 18 months before starting rehearsals - I went to Imagarium's studios in Ealing and got to put on the suit, and they introduced me to the first form of the Ariel avatar. They named him Mushy! I loved his animalistic quality, the muscular, visceral elements.
Andy Serkis was there, which was just incredible. They put music on and I ran around their stage for a couple of hours trying to get lost in the character. It felt a bit like mask work in that sense. Then we started working on refining the characteristics and movements.
Do you have much movement training?
I don't have any particular background in movement, but I've worked with the amazing Lucy Cullingford, who's helped me along the way.
Were you at all self-conscious?
To start with, yes, because you're wearing a skin-tight lycra suit and everyone else is in normal clothes! Then the early work is doing quite specific calibrations, syncing up the digital avatar's movements to your body, so I spent hours making minute different movements. But they kept saying "We're just after the data", so you soon lose any vanity.
Actually wearing the suit has become really liberating, especially playing a spirit - you're not bogged down by a doublet and hose. It's appropriately freeing. And once they've built the avatar, it's only limited by your imagination - you can do anything.
Did you learn along the way what did and didn't work?
I don't wear gloves in the show, which initially meant Ariel couldn't move his fingers - that seemed a shame, as they're expressive. So I talked to the designers and they built in this clever function where if I tilt my wrist it becomes a fist, and if I tilt it the other way it opens the hand up.
Then for the harpy, I don't have actual wings to move, but I have three sensors going up my forearm and each controls a section of the wing. Because birds' skeletal structure is different to ours, I found my wrists would actually control a huge amount of the picture. They built me sticks on my wrists so I could feel like I had a wing and work out how to convey that movement.
It's been a lot of fun! We're still developing things now, seeing "Oh, that was great - how can we maximise it?". Because it's a live effect, I don't have to hit any marks. I can do new things every night.
Is it tricky when you can't see what it looks like?
Definitely, part of the challenge early on was watching the computer and looking at myself to work that out, but obviously it has to go away and then you trust the director and the movement director.
There are moments when the tech will fail and I won't be aware of it! But we've got a great crew here who are quick to fix any issues, and actually I referred to a mini issue we'd had in a talk and it turns out none of the audience members had noticed.
How did you decide when to use the avatar?
We only use facial capture once in the show - I wear a head cam for that, which is a bit clunky. The motion capture is used where it'll be most effective dramatically in creating a heightened spectacle, so the harpy or the storm, and also moments of extreme emotion - like breaking into song in a musical. The cloven pine imprisonment, where Ariel is crumpled in the tree, is a really horrific memory.
Simon Russell Beale was really keen early on that the key pivots were done face to face. They're such important emotional changes, like where Ariel elicits Prospero's forgiveness by describing the lords' distress, and it's that intense connection of master and servants, or best friends, which they are in a way. So we decided early it would feel like cheating to have that with the avatar - you want it to be alive.
Of course I was keen to play those moments with Simon too! He's probably the actor I watched at drama school, and I was so inspired by his Benedick, Timon, all these amazing performances. He's really so extraordinary. There's very little affectation from his as an actor - he makes the text feel fresh and new-minted.
Speaking of which, did you always have an eye on the text?
With Shakespeare, you always have to start with the text, and we try to make sure that everything we're doing technically is justified. A lot of the visuals we use are right there - Ariel talking about dividing and burning in many places, turning into a nymph of the sea, a harpy, Prospero calling Ariel bird or spirit.
Greg is very much about the text - he never wanted it to be superfluous. His reasoning is that a masque of the time would use all the latest gadgets at their disposal, and this is the latest tech for us.
The amazing thing for me as an actor is getting to do this great text - like the harpy section is this epic, classical thing, so complex syntactically - with the very physical movement, and singing as well, which I haven't done since drama school. It's a bit of everything.
What's the audience response been like?
It lovely when we're able to capture people's imaginations with it, particularly seeing young people getting excited. I feel the motion capture side of things is more of a young person's vocabulary, with video games and movies, so it maybe gives them a sense of ownership - rather than stuffy old Shakespeare.
Any resistance, perhaps particularly in Stratford?
There might have been some people ready to blame the show's failings on technology. But we were always just trying to put on the play the best way we could, using the technology to enhance, not distract.
There's so much old and new in this job, and as a Shakespeare fan, I love that we're being true to the text while also being brave and pushing it in new directions. Shakespeare's malleable - you can throw so much at it. I hope we don't sacrifice the narrative or language, but fully realise his magical island.
What do you think of the Emma Rice/Globe debate?
I just saw Tristan & Yseult there and I desperately want to see Twelfth Night. It's a funny time! There will always be traditionalists with Shakespeare and people desperate for the latest thing - I think there's room for both. It feels to me that the Stratford audience is just interested in seeing Shakespeare done really well, whether that's incorporating new gizmos or not.
The RSC is a wonderful, dynamic company, and The Tempest has given me the privilege of seeing lots of different parts of it - like the enormously talented costume department, sound, the stage team, two of whom have been learning about motion capture alongside me. There's definitely no pressure for us to conform to purist representation.
Is motion capture something you'd like to do again on stage?
I'd love to - I'm hooked! It's a really fun and liberating tool. You can transform physically, which is something we all want to do as actors, but in a whole different way - I can't literally self-combust, but the avatar can. You can play different size, shape, anything. You can fly. It opens up your possibilities.
I'm a big believer in promoting versatility and stretching actors. In this profession it's very easy to get typecast, and this is one way to avoid that. I remember recently seeing Benedict Cumberbatch playing the dragon in the Hobbit film - I bet he never thought he'd be a dragon! It's really exciting, and it's been humbling to part of it in the early stages of its use in theatre.
How would you respond to people worrying about technology taking over theatre?
I think theatre has survived as long as it has because it's a live art form. We'll ultimately always want to see living, breathing people on stage in front of us. Not to say there isn't a place for something like motion capture, but I'm not worried about my pension fund! Fundamentally, theatre is a place for people to connect and the show being different every single night.
Finally, any dream roles?
Of course there are parts I'd love to play, but I always think the better answer is "A part I've never heard of". I love the variety acting gives you, stepping into someone else's shoes and playing parts outside of yourself, so thinking there's something to come you've never there is really exciting. I never imagined I'd get to do a motion-capture Ariel, and it's the biggest thrill.
The Tempest at the Barbican until 18 August. Book tickets here
Watch a video below!
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis, RSC