March 3, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Tempest (Cheek by Jowl/Chekhov International Drama Festival) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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The Russians are back. Cheek by Jowl’s Russian wing have previously brought us wonderful versions of Twelfth Night, Three Sisters and Boris Gudonov, and a return to Shakespeare was extremely welcome. It’s a pleasure to report that the ensemble once again proved that there’s plenty of fresh insight to be gleaned from the old plays.

Cheek by Jowl’s recent tendency has been towards greater levels of deconstruction, with actors increasingly addressing the audience directly, performing actions without contact and chopping up the dialogue. The Tempest, by contrast, saw actors once more performing scenes together in practical blocking (I shy away from saying “realistic”), building relationships and rhythms that, for the most part, rendered the surtitles superfluous. This was as clear a production of the play as one could hope for, while also making innovative decisions.

Rather than adopt the (post)colonial narrative that almost inevitably underpins modern productions of the play, Declan Donnellan instead drew on Russian history to locate the play at the collision between communism and capitalism. Igor Yasulovich’s Prospero was first and foremost an old man, in shirt sleeves and braces, who frequently resorted to mild violence and barely potent bluster rather than magic. Played as a Russian patriarch, then, his rule on the island was read as his attempts to control and educate his extended ‘family’, moulding them into behaviours that went against their basic nature. His tenure on the island represented his attempts to form a society according to his own (outdated) ideology, the negative practical application of the utopia imagined by a lively, jovial Gonzalo (Alexander Lenkov) earlier in the play.

The struggle to rule was evident from the beginning in his relationship with Anya Khalilulina’s Miranda. This Miranda, despite a veneer of civilisation, was near-feral. Often on all fours, arching her back and leaning suspiciously towards new arrivals, she alternated between violence (biting Ferdinand on the leg, punching her father hard) and timidity (hiding behind her father’s legs). Prospero in turn used a mixture of tough love (striking her down as she pummelled him) and touching concern – after putting her to sleep, he knelt over her for a long time, stroking her hair and gazing at her fondly. His attempts to civilise this wild creature included a long sequence washing her as she struggled, taking care to get behind the ears and the back of the neck. Later, she appeared uncomfortable in a simple wedding dress, throwing her bouquet petulantly to the ground. Her resistance to his attempts to force her into conservative modes of behaviour was a constant.

Fascinatingly, isolation from men had not taught this Miranda innocence, in the sense of demure or coy reticence. Rather, and more interestingly, it meant that she had not learnt reservation. On meeting Yan Ilves’s Ferdinand she could not restrain herself from touching him – slapping, nuzzling, sniffing, she drew him into her own physicality. This recently liberated Ferdinand, in a shocking moment of what can only be described as colonial arrogance, began to loosen his trousers, pinning her down in preparation to rape her, to the watching Prospero’s horror and to the unwitting Miranda’s joyful laughter. Prospero’s insertion of himself between them was greeted with disappointment by both, and they continued to try to touch one another until he was frozen by Ariel. Similarly, as Caliban entered for his first appearance, Miranda casually took her shirt off as a prelude to washing, to Prospero’s horror as he tried to re-cover her. His attempts to civilise her became a kind of constraint.

Prospero’s didacticism reached its apogee in the masque sequence, refigured as reminiscent of communist propaganda. Against the bare white back wall, black and white footage of happy farm workers was shown, and the three “goddesses” emerged from doors as buxom masked country girls, with sheathes of corn and bushels of apples. The goddesses sang their blessings, then gave way to a dancing chorus of sickle-carrying male farmhands, among whom Miranda and Ferdinand danced happily to the sounds of roaring crowds. Then, as if an afterthought, Prospero murmured “Stop”. He then shouted it more loudly. The music suddenly cut out, the dancers stopped and everyone looked at him in bemusement. He shouted it again, and the stage lights and house lights snapped on, and a stagehand appeared with a questioning shrug, as the actors looked out at the audience. Prospero had stopped both the masque and the play itself, bringing everything to a crashing halt; both politics and the artifice of performance itself undercut in a moment of stark realisation. Prospero’s subsequent soliloquy, delivered as the actor to the audience, was one of the production’s most powerful moments, an exchange of honesty and appeal to human sensibility that transcended the play’s politics and aesthetic. While this Prospero was reasonably unsympathetic, in this speech the actor forged a genuine connection with his auditors.

While the interruption of the communist propaganda was the clearest statement of political intent, exposing the idealised society as nothing more than a facade, a similar interest in the integration of the worker characterised much of the rest of the production. Alexander Feklistov’s Caliban was a worker rather than a monster, a slow and burly man in overalls who grumbled as he worked. In a production where Ferdinand was introduced as a rapist, Caliban’s tender relationship with Miranda was surprisingly sweet – the two joked and flirted, and she protested loudly at her father’s offstage whipping of him. The analogue between his in-grown drudgery and Prospero’s slow breaking of Ferdinand was pointed up by the Cheek by Jowl trick of juxtaposing the end of one scene with the beginning of the next, allowing the drunken and newly liberated Caliban to dance around Ferdinand as he carried his burden on his back. We saw in Ferdinand what had happened to Caliban; immediately prior to the wedding, Prospero struck the exhausted prince to the floor; then, while he lay there sobbing, the older man comforted him, brought in Miranda, then stripped, washed and dresed him, remaking the prince in his own image.

With Caliban this had failed, however, and instead the worker began making men in his own image. Hidden under a cloak thrown down from a raised platform by Ariel, Caliban was stumbled upon by the comically effeminate Ilya Ilin as Trinculo (sobbing as he was followed around by Ariel, who continually emptied a watering can over his head and threw unsuspected buckets of water at him) and the burly Sergey Koleshnya as Stephano. The business of two men hiding under the gaberdine was replaced by the two men sitting on top of the mound, from which a hand periodically emerged to steal a shot of vodka. The drunken Caliban became a revolutionary, opening his mouth for more alcohol and leading the comedians in song. Later, he stripped to the waist and daubed himself with warpaint, before initiating Stephano in the same way, turning the two men into visual twins. This was undone, however, in an inversion of the cultural transaction. Upon arriving in Prospero’s cell, a projection showed a lush boutique shop, and fine clothes, watches, mobile phones and accessories were wheeled in. The deeply materialist Trinculo went berserk for the beautiful clothes, while Stephano fully indulged himself also. In an hysterical scene, they discovered a credit card and machine with unlimited funds, which both men played with (Trinculo experiencing an orgasm as the receipt went through). They then introduced Caliban to the machine, inducting him into the joys of capitalism, at which point Prospero entered with his baying hounds.

Prospero’s power was realised by Ariel(Andrey Kuzichev), who wore black shirt and trousers and was accompanied for much of the production by four doppelgangers, who played music and echoed his lines. Ariel was a calm, emotionless presence, unshowy in his power (apart from one fantastic image where he opened a door to reveal Ferdinand awash in blue light, upside down and slowly spinning, as if completely submerged in water) and attentive to his master. The early power relations between Prospero and him seemed initially biased in favour of Ariel, who needed to be called several times before arriving, but then Ariel’s anguish and pain as Prospero reminded him of Sycorax were manifested in an out of control spin and clutching of the head. There was a sense of humour to many of Ariel’s interventions. He played the log(s) that Ferdinand carried, keeping himself ramrod straight as the prince picked him up and carried him across the stage, before sneakily standing up and walking back to his original position while Ferdinand looked the other way, to the latter’s increased exasperation. Eventually, Miranda helped him roll Ariel across the stage, resisting the spirit’s attempts to change the direction of his roll. At other times, the five Ariels merely wandered about the stage, pouring water for thirsty lords and playing for Caliban. The “men of sin” speech saw three of them appear as copies of Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian on a high platform, appearing above a projection of a court scene.

The lords themselves, as is usual for a production, were less spectacular, but all extremely well performed. Alonso (Mikhail Zhigalov) and Sebastian (Pavel Kuzmin) had an already troubled relationship in which Alonso repeatedly threated to hit his nervous younger brother, who was a blameful coward (as he handled the knife to kill Gonzalo, he whimpered pathetically). Evgeny Samarin’s Antonio, meanwhile, was a smoking discontent, happy to sit upstage and await his moments, while Alexander Lenkov’s Gonzalo was an unusually vibrant and entertaining figure, strong and hearty.

The play’s conclusion brought everything together in fitting manner, with the tension between Prospero and Antonio particularly emphasised in a snarl of disapproval from the new Duke of Milan. Most powerful, however, were the hints of long-term damage caused by Prospero’s time on the island. Lining up to leave via a back door, the characters waved or shrugged one by one before disappearing, including Miranda. However, after the last of the lords had left, Caliban howled. Miranda ran back in, crying and wailing, and threw herself into Caliban’s arms. Ferdinand chased her back in, and husband and father together tore the two apart, and Miranda was carried off flailing and protesting. Less violently, but more movingly, Ariel accepted his freedom quietly; then, after Prospero left with his suitcase, he looked about in some confusion. Caliban was sat on the floor, rocking gently; Ariel sat next to him, and put his hand on his head. This touching image implied yet again the level of damage caused by Prospero’s attempts to control his “subjects” – Miranda was forced away to a new life against her will, while Caliban and Ariel were lost without their orders, although Ariel’s gesture of compassion sounded a note of hope. Prospero re-entered for his epilogue, putting a hand on Ariel’s shoulder, and the rest of the cast followed suit, Miranda sitting at his feet in an evocation of the family photograph. It was a simple suggestion of healing to come, a positive grace note at the end of a powerful and game-changing production.

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