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: * * * *