Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Theatre Review : The Tempest - Barbican Silk St Theatre (dir Declan Donnellan 11/4/11)

There is a freshness at the heart of Cheek by Jowl’s earthy, physical – but always text-driven – interpretations of Shakespeare, which is why Declan Donnellan’s company is now an international powerhouse, constantly performing their repertoire of mainly classical works across the globe. This latest version of The Tempest at the Barbican Silk St Theatre, performed in Russian by the Chekhov International Festival Theatre, demonstrates Cheek by Jowl at their best.

Nick Ormerod's set is minimal, bare boards and a curved back wall with three doors. An aged, weatherbeaten Prospero (Igor Yasulovich) conjours the winds and the two side doors open to reveal little vignettes of the sailors fighting the storm. In an arresting image, the centre door opens to show Ferdinand (Yan Ilves) upside down as if he is swimming underwater. The storm subsides and Miranda (Anya Khalilulina) enters - beautiful, naïve and wild, running on two feet then crouching and crawling on all fours. However, as the stern Prospero prepares her to meet Ferdinand, his tenderness is evident as he combs her hair and tells her how he came to be on the island.

This is classic Donnellan – the set which just contains enough for the Director to use imaginatively, the physicality of the movement, the attention to the text and the true sense of the words, even if they have been cut and rearranged in their translation to Russian and back. One gets a sense of the rough rhythms of the Russian verse even whilst one is straining one’s neck to read the surtitles.

Ferdinand (Yan Ilves) piles logs (in the
form of Ariel (Andrey Kuzichev))
at the behest of Prospero
Water is a recurring theme, poured liberally around the stage. It rains on the sailors in the storm. Multi-facetted Ariel (Andrey Kuzichev), in his multiple forms, tortures Trinculo (Ilya Iliin) and Stephano (Sergey Koleshnya) by pouring water on them in ever-more imaginative ways. Miranda and Ferdinand are both cleansed in water, Miranda innocently stripping off her shirt before Caliban (Alexander Feklistov), whilst Prospero purifies Ferdinand before his marriage to his daughter.

The production pays witty homage to its Russian roots in the usually-tiresome masque scene, where Iris, Ceres and Juno are Russian peasant women joined by sickle-wielding dancers sing the praises of increased agricultural production whilst striking poses familiar from Social-Realist posters and stamps. And when Trinculo and Stephano are offered new clothes, they dress in suits and sunglasses like Russian mafiosa in a glitzy Moscow shopping mall, discovering to their delight that their credit cards work.

From being severe at outset, by the end of the play Prospero has expended his fury on those who betrayed him. He forgives the Duke his brother. He frees the faithful Ariel. And even at the end, before leaving the island, Miranda rushes back to Caliban and throws her arms around his neck. As we leave, Ariel is resting his hand on Caliban’s head in a gesture of compassion.

We have hope for those who remain on the island – perhaps more hope than for those who return to Italy. Prospero has abjured his rough magic – he must now rely on Ferdinand and the audience for succour and protection as he returns to Milan where every third thought will be of his grave. The magic and innocence of the Island has passed, he must return to so-called civilization to end his days, and we must return ourselves to the quotidian after losing ourselves in this spellbinding production.

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