Category Archives: Oxford

Spotlight: Alexander Feklistov, Actor

Alexander Feklistov graduated from the Moscow Art Theatre School in 1982, and worked for the Moscow Art Theatre for twelve years. He went onto create the 5th Moscow Art Theatre Studio. He is currently playing Caliban in Cheek by Jowl’s Russian production of The Tempest.


Why did you decide to become an actor?
I became an actor because of the mystery that lives in theatre. From my early childhood I wanted to know: what’s behind there? Behind Uncle Tom’s cabin.


What early theatrical experience can you remember having an impact on you?
I cannot forget Anatoly Efros’s Cherry Orchard. It was performed by great actors Alla Demidova and Vladimir Visotskiy and the action took place on a cemetery. Nothing I saw afterwards in my whole life has touched me as deeply, and it astonished me how this production of The Tempest affected me in a similar way.


Caliban has been performed in many ways onstage: a woman, punk rocker, and Rastafarian. What made you choose to play Caliban the way you do?
Caliban is a child, but he was abandoned and not brought up properly. You feel sorry for him, he can be very irritating, and it’s a very Russian part.


Shakespeare has been performed in Russian to Hindi. What is it to you that makes Shakespeare translate well into all cultures?
I think Shakespeare can be played in any language, but we’re only trying to do it justice. We enjoy his poetry, his verse, but once we start talking about the interpretation of the plays we never have the same viewpoint.


What would you say to a young person to encourage them to see this play?
I think it’s a very simple and honest production, simple but not simplified, and it has huge potential in it. We as actors are trying to catch up with the form of it and it’s never boring.

The Tempest at the Barbican runs from 7 April till 16 April.

The Tempest, at the Oxford Playhouse

oi you at the back, stop sleeping

If understanding the sixteenth-century language of a Shakespeare play can be daunting at times, watching it in Russian might sound positively masochistic. Cheek by Jowl’s The Tempest, in Russian with English subtitles, however, proves a surprisingly liberating experience. As a non-Russian speaker you find yourself more engrossed in the action, and it emphasises that this is how Shakespeare is supposed to be appreciated: onstage and not simply in books.


At under two hours with no interval, the production is fast-paced. The play begins when Prospero, who has been exiled on an island populated only by his teenaged daughter Miranda, their native slave Caliban and the sprite Ariel, uses his magical powers to conjure up a tempest. Prospero’s enemies from Naples are shipwrecked and washed ashore: an effectively bare wooden stage frequently sluiced with water. What follows is a series of attempts to usurp power, a pursuit for love, and families reunited.


Igor Yasulovich’s Prospero puts on a fine performance as the aged, over-protective father, and reinforces the commonly held critical viewpoint that as director of the action he is a version of Shakespeare himself. Prospero is often seen overlooking the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda, and at one point shouts “stop” during a big song and dance, which prompts the house lights to come up and a pretend backstage assistant to run on set, much to the audience’s amusement.


Andrey Kuzichev’s Ariel, dressed in a black suit, is simple but highly effective. He often appears onstage with four other lookalikes to show how he can magically affect the action in many places at once, an idea so brilliant you wonder why no production has thought of it before. At times the others are seen playing instruments in the background, giving the impression that the island is filled with spirit creatures. Only Anya Khalilulina’s Miranda feels inaccurate: instead of being naïve, she is unrefined; instead of being bolshy in her love for the shipwrecked Ferdinand, she is overtly sexual. And she is more like Caliban’s half-sister, animal-like in her movements, and hugging him goodbye before leaving with Ferdinand.


As 2011 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the play, director Declan Donnellan shows how it can be eternally relevant to different times and cultures. Most modern versions have a colonial perspective, but here we see a clash between communism and capitalism. Propaganda clichés of happy farmers and dancers with sickles are contrasted with Trinculo and Stefano’s fast fashion in power suits and sunglasses.


Humour is the key to this production’s success, which is unusual for a play that is not a Comedy, from Caliban’s drunkenness to buckets of water being thrown over spluttering actors. Repeatedly. After seeing Cheek by Jowl’s superbly funny Russian Twelfth Night five years ago, The Tempest is just as good. Whatever the language, to quote Miranda, “this is a tale, sir, that would cure deafness”.


Runs till 13 March, and tours the country including the Barbican from 7 April till 16 April.

 

To see or not to see: * * * *

Doctor Faustus, at Blackwell Bookshop’s Norrington Room


faustus' attempt at a mexican wave was not well received by the audience

Creation Theatre have put on performances at the Oxford Castle, an island in the River Cherwell, and the Amphitheatre at the Said Business School. Now Blackwell bookshop’s Norrington Room is home to their latest offering, Doctor Faustus.


Blackwell’s Norrington Room has three miles of shelving, and has even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest single room selling books. The set immediately gets you in the mood: you enter the dimly lit basement, the audience surround the stage like a séance, and there are plenty of philosophy and theology books to flick through before the play even starts. It is the perfect location for our main character.


The play tells the story of Doctor Faustus, a scholar who has an insatiable thirst for learning. As he studies the dark arts he meets a servant of the devil, Mephistopheles, and offers his soul to the devil in exchange for absolute power. Christopher Marlowe’s text has been cut to make the play two hours long.


Gus Gallagher’s portrayal of Doctor Faustus is decent. His moral dilemma, however, is not convincing, and is hindered by the two masks that represent his conscience telling him to be good or evil. Gwnfor Jones’ plays Mephistopheles best in his moments of deadpan humour, and Alex Scott Fairley is enjoyable as the comical Pope.


The mix of sixteenth century and contemporary costumes, from Doctor Faustus’ renaissance clothes to the devil and his helper’s National Front-like get up of Doctor Martens and shaved heads, suggests that the devils live outside of time and can dress anachronistically. Director Charlotte Conquest’s five actors make excellent use of space. The staging is creative with actors leaping up through trap doors, disappearing through secret passages, and illusions such as living heads served up on silver platters. The tricks make the first half surprising and shocking, but are unfortunately overdone in the second half making it gimmicky and predictable.


The choreography takes pains, especially with the literal representation of the seven deadly sins: sloth being accompanied with lullaby music and gluttony with burping. A promising effort made more exciting by the stimulating venue.


Runs till 26 March.


To see or not to see: * * *

Romeo and Juliet, at the Oxford Playhouse


she didn't believe him when he said she smelled like roses

It’s not often you go the theatre and find yourself surrounded by young people laughing. Not just laughing, but laughing at Shakespeare. Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s production of Romeo and Juliet pulls out all the stops to get the audience, largely made up of school children and students, to laugh out loud. The only problem is that it’s at sexual innuendos, which of course Shakespeare has many of, but at one’s that were never quite there. “Draw thy tool” is fittingly followed by a phallic object, erect, and thrusting, but so too is every other line that is said by the male characters. This modern version dumbs down the action, dashes through the verse, and does not shed any new light onto our understanding of the story.


The play tells the tale of Romeo, a Montague, who meets Juliet, a Capulet. The two are from feuding families, but fall in love, and don’t realise who the other is until it is too late. One of the unique things about the play is Chloe Lamford’s stage design. Before the action starts the stage is already like a shrine: a flowerbed at the front, flowers attached to posts, and flowers anywhere else possible. The symbolism is simple but clever: we are at a spot that will stage one of the greatest romances, but also where someone has tragically died.


Rachel Spicer, who plays Juliet, has come straight out of drama school to the company. Her Juliet looks young, pretty, and Topshop-clad, but is played bolshy, hard, and with little sincerity. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship should be erotically charged, but here it lacks any real passion. The masked ball, the moment two of the world’s most famous lovers meet, is unmemorable and unromantic. And the balcony scene pits Juliet more like an Amsterdam window girl framed by neon lights, pulling down her bra strap, and blowing kisses.


Oliver Wilson’s Romeo shows promise and is funny as a fumbling Romeo. Additionally, William Travis’ Lord Capulet is excellent at nailing Capulet’s anger, and Louisa Eyo is perfect as a friendly Jamaican accented Nurse. The main downfall for this production is the delivery, even some of the most famous lines like “a plague on both your houses” and “my only love sprung from my only hate”, are not said with conviction. The monotonous music does not help either, rather than adding a feeling of doom it adds a feeling of dreariness.


The company specialises in theatre for teenagers and young adults, and it certainly has this group laughing out loud. But by concentrating on gags it assumes this audience won’t be drawn to the most important thing about Romeo and Juliet: the tragedy.

 

Runs till November 13. Tours the country until 9 April 2011, including the Unicorn Theatre, London from 2 February till 12 February.


To see or not to see: * *

Private Lives, at Wadham College

he didn't know how to tell her that her outfit clashed with what he intended to wear

Bickering is not usually considered an evening’s entertainment, but when it is as good as the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s production of Private Lives it is unmissable. When Amanda says: “I was brought up to believe that it was beyond the pale for a man to strike a woman.” Elyot replies: “A very poor tradition. Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” So begins this comedy of manners that is full of camp humour, a laugh a minute, and verbal, as well as actual, sparring.


It is 1930. Elyot and Amanda have divorced five years ago and are now honeymooning with their new spouses in Deauville, France. They soon find out, however, they are not only in the same hotel but adjoining suites. At first glance, setting a play that takes place in France and largely indoors in Wadham College’s garden shouldn’t work. It’s a brave choice by Director Nicholas Green that pays off, making the performance more enriching and enjoyable. The music by strolling players also helps, which is Charles Trenet’s La Mer, a pleasing motif repeated throughout the play.


The work is memorable because of Noël Coward’s dialogue, and here it is delivered quick and sharp. It’s a surprise that the two-minute silences, which come whenever Elyot and Amanda say their private code word “Solomon Isaacs” to take time out from arguing, work smoothly onstage and are just as engaging. All of the actors keep up with the pace, especially Amanda, played by Pandora Clifford, who is perfect as the flamenco dancing, mink wearing queen of catty comebacks. And Matthew Fraser Holland’s brief appearance as a female maid is hilarious, as he keeps the audience laughing with every line of his over the top French accent.


Some of the fight scenes are a bit sloppy, and the two intervals unnecessary. The play is, however, reminiscent of the company’s successful 2006 production The Importance of Being Earnest, as it is performed with the same wit, speed, and gusto. After the charming production of The Tempest, which is also on, it is interesting to see the company mature into Private Lives. Who knew bickering could be this much fun.


Runs till 20 August.


To see or not to see: * * * *

Spotlight: Max Hoehn, Actor and Director

Max is a part of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. He has just been awarded a first-class degree in History at Queen’s College, Oxford. He first came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 with ‘Danton’s Death’, and returns this year with an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. He has co-adapted the play with Raymond Blankenhorn, and also directed and acts in the work.


In Master and Margarita you play the Devil, what attracted you to the role?

The Devil in Master and margarita has one of the most famous openings in Russian literature. He’s full of wit, charm and flair. In other scenes he evolves into a grander, Milton-esque figure. Capturing the different parts he plays in the book while preserving a recognisable charisma has been one of the main challenges.


Jesus, Satan, and Pilate are the main characters in the play. How did your perception of these figures change over the course of adapting, rehearsing, and performing the play?

Jesus, Satan and Pilate are hugely important because we all have our own preconceptions about what they’re like. Bulgakov gives each of them a different, surprising twist. In casting and rehearsals I was keen to avoid any slide towards traditional portrayals of these characters. Pilate in Soviet uniform was an interpretive decision to suggest a link between Bulgakov’s Jerusalem and the Stalinist world and to avoid any iconographic spin on the scene.


You have adapted, directed, and are acting in the play. What did you gain from the experience?

Directing, acting and co-adapting the play has meant I’ve really invested a huge amount in it and that has helped me to be committed heart and soul to the project. It’s not something I’d repeat in the professional world but for the fringe you can just about get away with it.


What would you say to a young person about the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s Master and Margarita to encourage them to see it?

The production of Master and Margarita stays faithful to the spirit and complexity of the novel while also presenting it in as imaginative a way as possible to make it engaging for those who don’t know the book. We’ve toured Oxford and London to full houses and a lot of positive feedback, particularly from Russians. I think it’s a vibrant engaging story that deserves to be seen.


What other play at the Edinburgh fringe have you seen that you would recommend?

That’s easy, Derevo at the Pleasance is a Russian show by a company Harlekin and is by far the most powerful thing I’ve seen so far. Its combination of dance, mime, and circus tells a simple set of stories with great beauty and heart.

Master and Margarita, at the Edinburgh Fringe, runs from 16 August till 30 August.

The Tempest, at Wadham College

i can't, i'm in love with trinculo

Caliban has been performed in many ways onstage: a woman, punk rocker, Rastafarian, Millwall fan, and a practically naked predator carrying a large phallic bone that offended one member of staff so much that it caused them to resign. When Miranda sets her eyes on Ferdinand, the third man she has ever seen, she instantly falls in love with him. Prospero protests, “this is a Caliban”, a similarity that is obvious throughout the story, but has yet to be fully realised onstage. Until now.


Ferdinand and Caliban are both royal suitors and treated in the same way by Prospero. In the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s version of the play Richard Pryal proves he is an outstanding actor playing both Ferdinand and Caliban. He switches, even in front of us, from being an upright, handsome, well-spoken Ferdinand to an ugly, aggressive, ape-like Caliban. It is a brave move by director Mick Gordon that works smoothly and excitingly to bring alive the character’s similarities, since it highlights how Ferdinand, and even we, can be “the Other”.


The story is set on a desert island, where Prospero has been ruling by use of his magic art for twelve years. He uses his powers to create a tempest, which his enemies from his hometown Naples get caught in. What follows are a series of attempts to usurp power, a pursuit for love, and families reunited. Much is made of the magic, comedy, and love, so much so that there is a song and dance with the repeated line “contract of love”. Nick Llloyd Webber (Andrew’s son) creates pretty and playful music, which compliments the production’s preoccupation with all things happy. It feels like more should be made about the plays more important themes like the relationship between art and nature, master and slave, and, of course (because of its Caliban), colonialism.


Some bits feel mismatched. Matthew Fraser Holland is doubled up to play Ariel and Gonzalo. His Ariel is whitened-up, in an outfit like a strait jacket, and has a demeanour like Rik Mayall’s Drop Dead Fred. He carries around a megaphone, occasionally blurting out lines or singing. Additionally, Prospero has Moses robes and a stick alongside a Miranda who wears an 80s Madonna-clad outfit teamed with Doc Martens.


At 90 minutes, with textual cuts, and frequent musical interludes, this is a bite size version of the play. It’s cute, snappy, and just as enchanting as the garden of Wadham College it is set in. The production only really succeeds, however, when it is more daring, as it is with Caliban, and is worth seeing simply for this.


Runs till 19 August, and tours the country including Hampton Court Palace from 21 August till 31 August.


To see or not to see: * * *