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Because what the Net really needs is another person sharing his uninformed views
Theatre review: The Tempest (Cheek by Jowl) 
9th-Apr-2011 05:16 pm
Only a couple of days ago I was bemoaning being in the middle of two Shakespeare-free months; but @OughtToBeClowns' enthusiastic endorsement gave me the opportunity to remedy that, with Russia's Chekhov International Festival and their version of The Tempest, presented by Cheek By Jowl: Declan Donnellan directs, and Nick Ormerod designs. I think I'm right in saying, unless I've forgotten something this is the first time I've seen Shakespeare performed in a language other than English. This production originally debuted in Paris so it was always aimed for more than just a Russian-speaking audience, and the visual inventiveness helps this along.

I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy this right from the start, as the beginnings of the tempest are indicated by doors swinging on their hinges in the wind - a recognisably realistic, slightly sinister sign of the weather starting to worsen. Donnellan has avoided any suggestion of Prospero being a kindly old man and instead has Igor Yasulovitch play him as a short-tempered, bitter and aggressive man whose violent tendencies are occasionally seen on stage but more frequently suggested by the terrified reaction of those around him, particularly Ariel. This character is in fact the most noticeably original reinterpretation: Although the role is credited to Andrey Kuzichev, who speaks the lines and sometimes plays the part alone, most of the time Ariel is played by up to five identically-dressed actors, very clearly giving the impression of his being a spirit of the air, virtually omnipresent.

There's a hell of a lot of water in this show, most of the shipwrecked men are soaked throughout - the fact that there's a lot of good-looking young Russian men in the cast doesn't exactly hurt, so between these two factors there's a good chance the first couple of rows might get wet. One way or another. Pavel Kuzmin as Sebastian isn't bad, nor is Yan Ilves as Ferdinand. The latter gets his arse out, which thanks to the modern wonder of YouTube trailers you can also get a quick glimpse of. And also an idea of the general visual aesthetic of the show, I know that's what you'll really be watching it for.

Sadly the trailer doesn't seem to show my favourite, Gela Meskhi, who was the littlest Ariel and quite outrageously attractive.

Cut down to about 2 hours (no interval) I think this is probably one of the more straightforward Shakespeare plots so lends itself to being seen in a different language. It doesn't take long to get used to the surtitles - after a while I found myself automatically reading them during the longer, more static speeches and then ignoring them during the action, where it's easy to get the gist. Even Prospero's early speech recapping the story so far doesn't come across as quite the Basil Exposition atrocity it usually does - though this might be partly due to the added sense of peril from wondering when he might suddenly give Anya Khalilulina's Miranda another slap. And crucially, the production investigates the play's dark side (there's a couple of pretty devastating punctures of the happy ending) without losing the joy and magic elsewhere. Very glad I made the trip, I could have written as much again but it would have spoilered even more of the clever touches than I already have.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare is booking until the 16th of April at Silk Street Theatre (the Barbican.)
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