fri 31/10/2014

The Tempest, Cheek By Jowl, Barbican Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

The Tempest, Cheek By Jowl, Barbican Theatre

Thrills and spills in a tough new Russian version

The masque scene: Song and dance with sickles and straw hats

Tradition, in the form of Victorian performance, conferred on The Tempest the VC of Highest Shakespearean Poetry, though it probably wasn't Shakespeare's final play. John Gielgud was in an important sense the last great Victorian English thesp and, in the apparently valedictory role of Prospero, took the island parable to an Olympus of rhetoric. More recent Shakespearean poetics have led us to a drama riven with attacks on its own rhetorical afflatus and most contemporary stagings make Prospero, for a start, a bully. Cheek by Jowl's new version certainly does.

This is the company's fourth production in Russian, in a scheme hatched in 1999 by Moscow's Chekhov International Theatre Festival to get director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod working with Russian actors - an earlier Shakespeare of theirs was Twelfth Night. I'm not a Russian speaker, so can't tell how much Shakespeare is truly represented in this translation (no translator is credited), but there's a lot of bellowing. There are huge cuts. Igor Yasulovich as Prospero is just so consistently cross with Miranda (Anya Khalilulina, pictured below) that a yearning for Gielgudian tenderness begins to tug not half an hour into this speeded-up, two-hour toughie of a Tempest.

MirandaIn a way, it's a bit of an irrelevance to assess the delivery, as the actors, who are clearly good, all bellow and do so in a language most in the Barbican's elegantly proportioned Silk Street Theatre audience surely don't know. The surtitles indicate about a 40 per cent cut to Shakespeare, mainly of Prospero's lines. The set is minimal: a large, three-panelled screen each with a door, put to wonderful use in the storm scene at the start. Through the doors, fragments of the mariners crowd and struggle and shout (in merciful contrast to one Tempest I saw in which an entire prow of a life-size ship trundled towards front of stage like a piece of museum replica losing control: this was at a famous theatre), while Prospero sits on a beer crate pleased with his mayhem.

There are many, many bright points - cultivated gestures - in the production. One of the doors opening to show Ferdinand (Yan Ilves) hanging upside down, arms clawing towards the floor and so suggesting a man swimming for his life, is worthy of Robert Lepage. The panels are used throughout for stylish sky and sea video. And those doors again: they open to eject five dark-suited men with their backs to us, all Ariel, which is a lovely idea - four go on to comprise a band (accordion, clarinet, tom-tom, mini-vibes) evocatively rolling out Prospero's magic when required, while Ariel is swiftly, cleanly played by Andrey Kuzichev. Instead of wood, it's Ariel whom Ferdinand carries on his back (pictured below), an ingenious solution to the nightmare of logs clattering everywhere.

FardelsWater, buckets of it, everywhere: sluicing down a horny Ferdinand, bathing a tomboy Miranda, dousing the hapless usurpers (Antonio et al), torturing (and it's very funny) a lost, twinky Trinculo (Ilya Illin). Caliban - Alexander Feklistov - roars conventionally enough and, daubing himself and Stephano (Sergey Koleshnya) with warrior gunk to take on Prospero, hasn't actually been given enough thought to make him distinct from every other Caliban you've ever seen. Anya Khalilulina is brilliant as Miranda, crouching and stalking across the stage like a wildcat on heat. The masque (Act IV, scene 1) turns into a parodic, Soviet-style song-and-dance routine with men in straw hats carrying sickles, which Prospero of course has to stop (Caliban's on his way: "Our revels now are ended..."). House lights up, engineer wanders on - we think something's gone wrong: very clever.

There's also some tomfoolery at the end with Trinculo and Stephano mobile-phoning each other (not in Shakespeare, as it happens) and then Miranda, united with Ferdinand, suddenly throwing herself at Caliban in a rage at being sundered from him (for which passion there's not a trace of evidence in the play). There is cleverness and ingenuity aplenty in this fiercely unglamorous Tempest, but no attempt at metaphysics or extended metaphor, which is where its creator had arrived when he wrote it. More probing and less showing off, and perhaps just a little more of the original, would have made this one exemplary.

Watch Cheek by Jowl's trailer for The Tempest


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