Tag Archives: william shakespeare

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: * * * *

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: * * *

Gifted, at the White Bear Theatre

who needs change when you can have a kiss

One of the joys of watching fringe theatre is that it often tackles controversial issues in a way that larger institutions maybe more afraid of. In director Chris Loveless’ Gifted, however, this is not the case; every possible issue from domestic violence to homosexuality is crammed into seventy minutes. It is a classic case of how less is more.


The play tells the story of Fran who is an A Level student with hopes of going to Cambridge. She strikes up an unlikely relationship with Norman, an elderly homeless man, and tells him “you’re the first person to tell me the truth about things.” As her father is an arms dealer and Norman is a Falklands war veteran she gradually hates her father and falls in love with Norman.


If writer Peter Billingham had decided to simply handle how different generations viewed war, especially before a General Election, he would have succeeded at delivering a succinct message. Instead school bullying, mental illness, and alcohol abuse are added in weighing down the story.


A finer point comes when Fran and her school friend Mocha revise William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “Plays take you somewhere, they release you” remarks Fran, who in turn writes her own poetry. Fran’s speech echoes Juliet’s, which is effective because they both are young, planning to run away, and hate their parents. So when Fran says “how can I respect what I despise”, it is akin to when Juliet says “my only love sprung from my only hate.”


An outstanding performance comes from Matthew Ward as Norman, who, on an evening with only five audience members, was able to fill the theatre with singing as a drunk hobo as well as emotion as a lonely old man. Touching performances lost on a muddled play.


Runs till 16 May.


To see or not to see: * *