'Tempest' review or 'Did someone say something about revels?'

'The Tempest', William Shakespeare
Cheek By Jowl and the Chekhov International Festival
Barbican Theatre, Friday 8th April 2011 
Written for Culture Wars

Miranda, Yana Gurianova and Ferdinand, Yan Ilves. Photo Credit: Johan Personn

There’s so much trickery bound up in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, so many temptingly expansive moments and images, that it’s easy for directors to go overboard. This delicate play can become a bit of a circus. The wonderful thing about Cheek By Jowl’s and Chekov International Festival’s version is that it is so still, threading the show with sparkle rather than drowning it in glittering effects.

The magic moments in Declan Donnelan’s production come with Prospero’s great speeches. This would be impressive for any interpretation but considering this show is in Russian, subtitles scanned across suspended screens, this feat is extraordinary. When Igor Yasulovich launches into Prospero’s strange, deeply meta-theatrical speeches, the air throbs. One need not even look at the subtitles. Somehow, Shakespeare’s great monologues pulse  independently of the language. The emotions rise up through Shakespeare’s rhythm and Igor Yasulovich’s whispered delivery and the play's meaning translates perfectly.

This refusal to deploy cheap tricks, to stoke the wind of Prospero’s sweeping storms, does mean things feel a little still, initially. This play prompts extravagant beginnings but, in Cheek By Jowl’s effort, the opening storm is a controlled and circumscribed event. Everything is contained by doors and the tempest is shut down, just as easily as it is let in. Prospero stands  amidst a sparse, white washed stage, a screen of doors flanking backstage. The great storm enters the stage in bursts and at Prospero’s negligible command. A door swings open and we see glimmers of men, hanging onto ropes and screaming for their lives. ‘We split! We split’, they cry. The relative calm of this storm makes the drowning dukes seem all the paler, Prospero more commanding still.

Prospero doesn’t even have his staff in this production and his lackey, Ariel, is certainly no tinker bell. Instead, Ariel is re-imagined as a group of men, all severe and black-suited. Early on, their sombre status frustrates. Even their instruments – including a wooden flute, accordion and glockenspiel – demand stillness. Their restraint risks dampening the production and calming its surging waves of anarchy.  

But, as Prospero waves his invisible wand and the action picks up, these Ariels become curiously effective. They command the weather using a stark, red watering can, against a clean white set. It looks silly but somehow feels significant. Again, the minimalism of these actions – the tiny spray it takes to unleash a torrent of rain – actually lends them more power.

Ariel does a little gentle watering

The one area this production does not hold back is with the depiction of Caliban (Alexander Feklistov). Everyone else is reachable and human in here: Prospero is an old man in dirty clothes, Miranda a slightly wild lass, Trinculo a camp and stranded chap, desperate for comfort. But Caliban is a real monster, with his mouth drooling, his words hideously garbled, his eyes pounding dangerously from his face. 

Caliban, Alexander Feklistov. Photo Credit: Johan Personn

It’s hard to say why Cheek By Jowl push this one character so hard, especially since he isn’t simply sinister. Feklistov’s thundering creature is also a figure of fun, at one point slathering himself in mud and taking on Sebastian in a boxing match. I can’t decide how this laughable but detestable monster fits in here, though the distinction between Caliban’s base appearance and the sharp-suited, shipwrecked dukes, is certainly profound.

A few ideas might feel a little out of kilter, then, but this is understandable in a show that bleeds invention. This company is so controlled, so rigorous - but curiously liberated too. Near the end, as Trinculo and Sebastian wander through the island, they stumble across a high end store, reminiscent of 5th Avenue. It is such an incredible snap and yet, as Stephano coos at sunglasses and Trinculo slips on suits, it never feels discordant. Instead, it’s fascinating to watch this motley crew go weak at the knees at the altar of fashion. It is a scene that backs up a running criticism of consumerism that wafts quietly throughout.

Stephano in his shades

One might've thought that a company translating Shakespeare into Russian, on a British stage,  would have felt compelled to rein in their ideas or overstress their interpretation. Instead, Cheek By Jowl have elucidated only when necessary. Sometimes they highlight single images with beautiful vignettes and, yet, at other times the whole canvass of the stage transforms with no explanation at all. It is anarchy and order in perfect alignment. Not fireworks, maybe – but real, sustained sparks of magic.


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