“The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance”
My first Cheek By Jowl production was Macbeth last year but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by it to be honest but seeing that their new production to arrive at the Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican was a Russian-language version of The Tempest (and my record with foreign-language Shakespeare at the Barbican has been a resounding success thus far) I was easily tempted back to try this out: be warned, this review contains much detail as I absolutely loved it! This production is by their Russian sister company, the Chekhov International Festival but directed and designed by CbJ’s Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod putting a unique spin on Shakespeare’s tale of art and illusion, magic, betrayal and power as Prospero seeks to avenge the wrongs done to him and restore his daughter to what he sees as her rightful place.
Igor Yasulovich’s Prospero is grizzled, embittered and cantankerous from the off, there’s a real climate of fear on the island as the inhabitants are all-too-aware of their master’s capricious moods as he sees himself very much as the patriarch of this place. Donnellan has drawn on a Russian aesthetic at a time poised somewhere between communism and capitalism. So Trinculo and Stephano’s abuse of Prospero’s dwelling takes place in a high-end boutique exposing their materialistic tendencies and the masque at the wedding is a whirl of Communist worker propaganda and peasant dancing. That this is what Prospero calls to a halt in a moment of meta-theatre in order to deliver his ‘our revels now are ended…’ soliloquy is given an even stronger power as art and politics combine in a flash of stark realisation as the stage manager comes on, the show stops, Yasulovich talks to us as himself, stripping back all the artifice before us.
Cheek By Jowl are known for their thorough examination of familiar texts and thus the characters here have been interrogated and reassessed so fully that it seems incredible that other interpretations haven’t picked up on these facets (at least in productions that I have seen). Anya Khalilulina’s Miranda thus becomes an almost feral wild-child, in the absence of society she hasn’t learned such behaviours as innocence and reservation – indeed thinking about this, how could she be the princess-in-waiting that is so often depicted. On first sight of Ferdinand, she leaps on him as a new playmate to explore without hesitation, being told to freshen up by her father, she strips off unashamedly in front of all and it is Prospero who rushes to cover her breasts. She truly is a daughter of the island and wants to discover the new opportunities presented to her, on her own terms: even the necklace Prospero places on her neck to make her more appealing to Ferdinand is resisted by her.
Andrey Kuzichev’s Ariel was simply sensational, practically ever-present prowling the stage with a beautiful dancer’s grace and marshalling his army of doppelgänger spirits into carrying out his mischievous magic, filling the air with enchanting music and generating a wonderful air of magic. But there was an inquisitive side which downplayed some of his playfulness, an awakening inside of Ariel too to this strange but handsome intruder on their island, with looks of longing towards Ferdinand and outstretched hands yearning to give comfort to him. Even the horseplay of Ferdinand’s never-ending labour as Ariel plays each log that is transported from one side of the stage to the other, running back each time, is overladen with homoerotic feeling as the spirit comes ever closer to understanding the concept of love.
But there wasn’t a weak performer among them: Ilya Iliin’s aforementioned uber-vain Trinculo was hysterical with his every movement, constantly fixing his hair and orgasming over the trappings at the boutique; Yan Ilves’s manly Ferdinand, almost unable to control his sexual urges as Miranda plays with him and pleasingly tight-buttocked in a lovely scene where he is washed; but also Alexander Lenkov’s kindly Gonzalo and Alexander Feklistov’s gruff vodka-swiping Caliban, every single movement and interaction within this company felt essential and perfectly placed. The constant use of water throughout is also interesting: it variously becomes an agent of control, of fear, of cleansing, of new hope, of redemption.
My favourite aspect of the production though was the way in which the ending was treated. Cheek By Jowl never let you forget that Prospero is micro-managing every single thing and that even though he has decided to abjure his rough magic [sic], the consequences of his manipulations still rumble worryingly through the people in his life. Miranda’s despatch to be Ferdinand’s bride was met with howls from Caliban and as she ran back wailing into his arms, it took both Ferdinand and Prospero to separate the two bosom friends. And as they finally left, Caliban rocking inconsolably on the floor, Ariel placed his hand on Caliban’s head, suggesting the damage done and raising the question of whether this is a gesture of control or compassion. As the company came out for Prospero’s last speech, he placed his own hand on Ariel, re-forming the chain and demonstrating the true power dynamic of their relationship: this was a Prospero I did not want to set free or applaud, such was his character.
Applaud the company we did though, for a truly bracing and invigorating interpretation of The Tempest in which performance truly transcended language. More often than not I didn’t even bother reading the surtitles, it helped that I know the play quite well, but the acting is so expressive, the whole atmosphere so bewitching that I rarely wanted to drag my eyes away. Book now as it is only a short run and Trevor Nunn, I do believe the gauntlet has been laid down!