Tag Archives: the tempest

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: * * * *

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: * * * *

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: * * *

Nation, at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre

promise me you'll never wear trousers

Following the National Theatre’s hit family shows of His Dark Materials, Coram Boy, and War Horse, comes Nation. Mark Ravenhill, who wrote Shopping and Fucking, has with mixed success adapted Terry Pratchett’s novel Nation for the stage.

It is the 1860s and, like The Tempest, the play opens with a tsunami. The young aristocratic Daphne, whose father is 139th in line to England’s throne, meets the handsome leader Mau, who is head of the island, as she is swept ashore. What ensues is a series of funny introductions to customs: Daphne introduces Mau to English tea drinking, “one lump or two”, and Mau introduces Daphne to drinking water, “you must spit in it.”

The play has child-friendly (and somewhat dull) moralising apt for a pre-Christmas show: “It’s hard work to work out who the enemy is,” says Daphne, admitting her own failings in thinking of Mau as a threat to her, since it is the English who are more of a threat to her and the nation on the island. The Victorian women are represented as figures of fun with their traditions, and it’s the island women who have a “woman’s wisdom”, courageousness, and quick thinking. So as Daphne moves from being a Victorian lady to a grass-skirted local, and her father returns, she has to make a decision: love or duty?

Gary Carr as Mau is excellent, and Emily Taaffe as the young teenager Daphne moves from adorable to irritating. The play succeeds with director Melly Still and Mark Friend’s grand stage perfect for an adventure story: it revolves, has three huge screens, and plenty of fairy lights that make the Dante-like underworld look romantic rather frightening. Everything is larger than life: the singing, dancing, puppets, waves, gunshots, statues, and thunder.

This year the National’s Death and the King’s Horseman and The Observer offer warnings about the effects of colonialism in Africa, and Nation does the same but in an unnamed South Pacific Island. The National’s choice of productions can be seen as a warning in itself: black actors are frequently cast off in a colonial past whilst Asian actors are mingling with their modern identity in Black Album or Mixed Up North that is currently playing at the National.

Nation is Pirates of the Caribbean meets Lost, and would wow a young audience with its spectacular set rather than story. What the story shows however is that the Empire, even with its post-colonial guilt, can still strike back. Three times.

Runs till 28 March 2010.

To see or not to see: * * *

Spotlight: Melanie Whitehead, Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning Department Manager

Melanie WhiteheadMelanie is the Learning Department Manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In March 2008 Stand up for Shakespeare was launched in schools, it aims to get young people acting Shakespeare, seeing it live, and starting it earlier. 

What is the biggest obstacle in getting young people into Shakespeare?

A lot of the work we do is about raising aspirations. There’s this assumption that Shakespeare is hard, and if you can understand Shakespeare then you’re good. In some ways it works in our favour, as we know we can get young people to enjoy it, celebrate it, and play the characters. Sometimes you just want to forget all the assumptions though, so it’s good to work with younger people as they don’t have that perception and they don’t have the weight of their parent’s perceptions. 

Why do you think Stand up for Shakespeare has been successful in schools? 

With the campaign we heard lots of different views and lots of high profile people have supported it. I think there’s always a debate around whether it’s just celebrating this dead white guy who is speaking this impenetrable language and hasn’t been around for four hundred years, therefore we should get him off of our curriculums and be studying current influences today. Scholars debate this all the time and for me it comes back to the way he presents a human that is cross-cultural. It’s not about “I feel like this because this is my cultural understanding”, it’s about “I feel like this because I’m a human being and in this situation”, and that is understandable from wherever you are. 

In Stand up for Shakespeare you encourage students to see Shakespeare live so they have positive early experiences. What early theatre experience had an impact on you? 

I was quite lucky to be introduced to Shakespeare in a non-threatening way, I had a few inspirational teachers who approached Shakespeare in a stealth way and I was my mum’s theatre partner. I remember the first time I walked into the Swan theatre and it feeling very intimate and sacred, but it also felt casual that you were being embraced into this sanctum space. It wasn’t Shakespeare I saw, it was Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and that was my moment of going “wow, live theatre rocks.” 

How can the Royal Shakespeare Company attract a more young and diverse audience?

We work with schools and within schools we have a complete cross section of society. And part of our work is making sure we engage with culturally diverse schools because it is about those first experiences, if young people can get used to being in the theatre and having a good experience of Shakespeare then that will hopefully last. I think in terms of our statistics it’s increasing, we are doing better than we used to do at attracting new audiences. Part of the Complete Works Festival was about expanding that repertoire, for example, Dash Art’s Indian Dream and South Africa’s The Tempest, those kind of productions were about going, you know what there are people all over the world doing Shakespeare and it isn’t about white middle-class people from Stratford. In fact it was astounding for seeing that diversity of performances and I would never have said an all-white set of Titus Andronicus in Japanese would have been one of my favourite performances from the festival, but it absolutely was because it was beautiful and very well done.

The National Theatre and Royal Opera House have been transmitting live cinema broadcasts of drama, opera, and dance.  Do you think this helps or hinders getting people into theatre? 

It’s a really interesting debate, Michael Boyd was recently misquoted saying something like the National’s production of Phedre is a different medium; it’s a two-dimensional medium as opposed to a three-dimensional world. He was on the phone to Nick Hytner [artistic director of the National Theatre] in moments saying he didn’t say that. What we’re used to seeing on our screens are close ups, visually spectacular things, special effects and you don’t get that in the theatre; your eyes do the panning in and out for you. It’s difficult as what works in theatre doesn’t always translate into film, having said that we’re constantly asked to do film versions of our productions and have just done a film version of David Tennant’s Hamlet. I think cinema are losing their audiences and doing as many things they possibly can to get more people in; as we now have giant screens in our homes they now have 3D cinema and all those other gimmicks. Obviously for me there is no better experience than a live experience, however, getting people to understand how theatre works and seeing it will hopefully lead people through the doors.

Spotlight: Tom Piper, Royal Shakespeare Company’s Associate Designer

Tom PiperTom studied at Magdalen College School, Oxford, began a BA in Biology and switched to Art History at Trinity College, Cambridge. When school friend Sam Mendes, now director of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, needed a set designer for a university play Tom volunteered to do it. He went into complete a postgraduate course in Theatre Design at the Slade School of Art, and is now the Associate Designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company. 


How did you get into theatre designing? 

I enjoyed building tree houses as a child and then at university where I was meant to be studying Biology I got into student theatre . I did thirty shows in four years; I built and painted them all myself with not much sleep, including trips to Edinburgh and Avignon with shows


What skills are important to be a theatre designer? 

You have to be able to think like a sculptor, engineer, dress maker, painter, model maker and have a passion for theatre and how plays work. Be a collaborator and be prepared to change and develop your ideas all the time.


How much do contemporary concerns affect your creative choices?

After 9/11 I was designing The Tempest and it very much influenced how we thought about the production. The ship was an abstract structure made of tall ladders almost like a tower. The storm a bright light that seemed to hit the structure. The island was made out of the ruin of the tower. Modern politics often seems to be reflected in Shakespeare’s plays which deal in universal themes, the rise of popular leaders, and their inevitable downfall.


Do you think theatre reacts quicker to news than other art forms?

Not always. There are examples of plays that are made in a rapid response to world events, but there is still the time it takes to commission, write and rehearse. Another example was when I was doing a production of Twelfth Night that started rehearsing immediately after the 2006 Tsunami. All the initial reference material I had gathered of ship wrecks and storm damage seemed voyeuristic after the horrors of that event, so we move away from any literal depiction of the storm and instead found a more abstract way of representing the terror of a ship wreck.


What would you say to young people about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Twelfth Night to encourage them to see it?

Theatre in the Courtyard is an immediate and very involving experience. The actors are in the same room with you, the audience are on three sides, so there is a very direct communication between the actors and audience. It is not the stuffy experience you might imagine in an old fashioned theatre. There is a great mix of people throughout the theatre, with even seats up in the gallery having a great view. Nobody is more than thirteen metres from the stage.


Twelfth Night, at the Courtyard Theatre runs from the 15 October till 21 November, and at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 19 December till 27 February 2010.