Review: The Tempest, Nuffield Theatre, Thursday 17 March 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Prospero as ‘the very Shakespeare, as it were, of the tempest’. As Coleridge suggests, The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, is deeply concerned with dramatic art and illusion, a concern that is drawn out in this new production from Cheek by Jowl’s Russian sister company. Director Declan Donnellan assaults the senses in a striking interpretation which weaves ideas about theatre and power together with hints of Russia’s past and makes powerful use of music, movement and lighting to create a captivating, dream-like vision.

Designer Nick Ormerod’s island, the scene of usurped duke Prospero’s exile, is a bare room with three swinging doors through which characters can observe and be observed in a production that highlights the act of watching. Igor Yasulovich’s weary yet commanding Prospero strides around the stage or looks down from above, while Ariel hovers calmly at the sidelines, silently watching the action and poised to execute his mischief. There is a stillness and graceful control to Andrey Kuzichev’s movements as the enslaved spirit that evokes an air of the otherworldly, an air that is enhanced by the haunting accompaniment of music played by a host of black-clad spirits.

The audience, like the victims of the storm, are transported to another world where we are confronted by strangeness at every turn. Alexander Feklistov brings an animal-like quality to Caliban, the ‘thing of darkness’, in a captivating physical performance that is by turns vicious and tender. Wild, too, is Prospero’s daughter Miranda, played with a twinkling mischievousness by Anna Khalilulina, who gleefully skips and leaps around the stage like a feral thing. The sense of the foreign is of course heightened by the Russian translation, which is effective for this setting despite making life a little harder for the audience member, who is demanded to both read and watch.

Besides adding to the feeling of the unknown that pervades the island, the Russian is central to this imagining of the play. There are echoes throughout of the country’s history, from the Russian peasant dance at Miranda and Ferdinand’s betrothal masque, conjuring images of Soviet propaganda, to the succumb of Trinculo and Stephano to the dazzling allure of capitalism and the credit card. This gentle satire provides some of the humour that adds colour to the production, much of which is also facilitated by Ilya Iliin’s hilariously camp Trinculo, introduced in a riotous scene in which he attempts in vain to protect his precious appearance from an onslaught of water.

This is a production that is literally as well as metaphorically drenched in water. The stage is awash with the stuff as Ariel torments his washed up victims by pouring water over their heads; Ferdinand receives a head to toe shower on stage; buckets of water are repeatedly thrown over the unsuspecting. This is all symbolic, perhaps, of a cleansing of past betrayals in preparation for the ‘brave new world’ that the characters are about to create at the play’s conclusion.

Yet there is a constant darkness underlying Donnellan’s interpretation in which the water plays an integral part, with hints of torture in Ariel’s relentless dripping of water on the heads of the island’s bewildered visitors. Despite the apparent resolution of the finale, this is a production that never ceases to be unsettling, as political plots are hatched in dark corners and disturbing issues about rule and slavery are raised. Cheek by Jowl do not shrink away from the problematic elements of Shakespeare’s play in a production that is brave, memorable and visually stunning.

2 Responses to “Review: The Tempest, Nuffield Theatre, Thursday 17 March 2011”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] last chance to see Cheek by Jowl’s acclaimed Russian version of The Tempest (read my review here) in the UK, which takes up residence at the Barbican from […]

  2. […] not overwhelming twists on well-known plays. Cheek by Jowl’s outstanding Russian version of The Tempest wins the award for most water-drenched stage, returning to this shipwreck drama a tangible sense of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: