Tag Archives: twelfth night

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: * * * *


Twelfth Night, at the Courtyard Theatre

due to the recession it was one script between four

due to the recession it was one script between four

You better believe it, Richard Wilson is appearing onstage as Malvolio in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Twelfth Night. Wilson triumphs, despite being terrified at the age of 72 having never tackled Shakespeare before. Malvolio has attracted top actors like Patrick Stewart, Simon Russell Beale, and more recently Derek Jabobi; oddly for Wilson it is the tragedy of a duped Malvolio, who is left walking alone in the dark at the end onstage, that he is better at than the hilarity of the yellow stockinged one. There has never been a more sympathetic Malvolio.

As the opening lines representing excess, “if music be the food of love, play on” are spoken, director Gregory Doran takes us into an exotic world of violins, hookahs, fine mats, and silken cushions. The play tells the story of twins Viola and Sebastian who have been shipwrecked and lose each other, as Viola finds herself swept ashore and alone she disguises herself as a man and takes a job working for the Duke Orsino. What ensues is mourning, madness, and love triangles. 

Doran’s production is sensitive, perhaps from having been a twin himself, which makes moments like the twin’s eventual reunion incredibly touching. What the play gains in empathy it loses in comedy, and this is meant to be a Shakespearean Comedy. It does not have enough laughs or sex appeal like most Twelfth Nights, instead quick laughs come from having Sir Toby Belch break wind rather than from Shakespeare’s funny lines. 

It is refreshing to see an alternative Feste, this all-singing all-dancing Feste is playful making music from rubbish bin lids and spinning through clothing lines. He is Puck-like rather than elusive like Ben Kingsley’s famous portrayal in Trevor Nunn’s version that many Festes follow. Stand out performances come from Milton Yereolmeou’s Feste, Wilson’s perfectly cast Malvolio, and Alexandra Gilbreath’s Olivia. As Feste ends the play singing “we’ll strive to please you everyday” though, this production does just that, it pleases rather than impresses.

Runs till 21 November, and moves to the Duke of York’s Theatre from 19 December till 27 February 2010. 


To see or not to see: * * * 

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.