Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cheek by Jowl: The Tempest / Буря - Oxford Playhouse

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Declan Donnellan
Reviewer: Ali Lantukh

Theatre group Cheek By Jowl’s Russian sister company the Chekhov International Theatre Festival are gracing our shores with this vibrant, unsettling and innovative production of ‘The Tempest’ for March and April only (by way of Oxford, Southampton and London) - and you absolutely must see it whilst you have the chance. Bringing Shakespeare to life in a totally new and powerful way, this production floods the senses with language, sound and vigour. 
Essentially, The Tempest follows the story of a magician, Prospero (Igor Yasulovich), the usurped Duke of Milan, who causes a tempest to break out at sea, in order to avenge his betrayal by his political enemies, and to restore his position. Prospero uses his spirit Ariel (Andrey Kuzichev) to manipulate the others to his ends, and the results play out before the audience on stage.
It may seem an odd choice to perform Shakespeare entirely in Russian (subtitles in Shakespearean English are projected onto the stage - although performances in France went without translation). As a student of Russian language it was quite a disconcerting experience hearing Russian whilst simultaneously reading the Shakespearian text. But for Russian and non-Russian speakers alike, I believe there was something very compelling and powerful in using this language - something strong, poetic, rhythmic. And as other reviewers before me have noted, it reveals the astounding dramatic qualities of Shakespeare’s play, his mastery of plot, emotion and humour, his understanding of humanity, that transcend language. 
Not only did the production portray this linguistically, but in a number of other devices that proved captivating. Ariel’s magical mischief is accompanied by live music played on stage, the strains of the accordion enchanting his victims. These moments were, simply, magical. Kuzichev’s presence on stage was something so other-worldly that I felt utterly drawn into the enchantment. This was truly an ensemble performance however, and it is very difficult to pick out any ‘star’ players, all of the actors giving top-class performances, adeptly engineering the mood of the play from all-out comic to dark and enigmatic with a moment’s notice. 
The initially rather bare-looking stage was also used creatively and intelligently. Lights, imagery and film were reflected onto the back wall to create different scenes; doorways were used to reveal apparitions, characters, and scenes within scenes. The lack of props also allowed the extensive use of water throughout the play - a dramatic symbol of power, control, human fragility, torture, cleansing. The wet clothes of the characters washed up by the tempest also served to underline the play with an uncomfortable feeling. I would like to have seen a little more of the use of the creative projection of imagery from the beginning of the play, but this is only a very minor gripe. 
The Tempest was my first experience of a Cheek by Jowl production, but I will now be on the look out for their next performance. This play comes very highly recommended. 
Runs until 12th March
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