The Tempest

The Chekhov International Festival theatre performs Shakespeare's late work.

Interfering in other people's countries, enslavement, despots and would-be despots - The Tempest could have been written today, and it's hard to believe that it is now in its quadricentennial year. Cheek by Jowl's Muscovite "sister" company, the Chekhov International Festival theatre, are currently performing Shakespeare's late, great work at the Barbican's Silk Street Theatre, in a performance that is at once elemental, urbane and riotously funny.

And what an astonishing interpretation it is. The story of the stranded duke who magically entraps his usurpers is gutsily re-worked. Performed in Russian with English surtitles, these Russians, with their dark, liquid consonants, seem to have Shakespeare bubbling out of their throats: it's a visceral explosion. They fight, spit and slosh their way through the text, doused and dunked in water much of the time.

We never forget that the sea inundates and whittles this island: Nick Ormerod's design is a bleached backdrop (with doors that rattle in the wind), used sparingly for projections, and a foreground of flotsam - sand, beer crates, coils of rope. A door opens at one point to reveal the young prince Ferdinand as the drowned sailor, suspended upside down, a Tarot Hanged Man. Prospero's foes are landed like a catch of wet fish; his spirit Ariel teases and tortures the shipwrecked Trinculo with soakings from watering cans and buckets; in a redemptive moment the old mage himself sets to ritually bathing and cleansing the filthy Ferdinand.

There are bold and political interpretive touches from director Declan Donnellan. A troika of Ariels at one point address the castaways from a brutalist podium, with courtroom projections suggesting a Stalinist show trial. But it's the seductions of capitalism that reel in Trinculo and Stephano: the joyous anachronisms of haute couture, the credit card, and the mobilfon.

The masque of Ceres is presented as a toe-tapping Soviet-style musical number: masked babushkas preface dancing hordes of happy, sickle-wielding peasants, who appear to leap straight from social realist propaganda posters. When Prospero brings an end to the "masque" the house lights go up, he switches briefly from Russian to English, and a sound engineer wanders on stage - an elegant way of conflating Prospero's art with the art of theatre itself.

The Russian ensemble's clowning is a particular treat. Trinculo (Ilya Iliin) is given a high camp makeover, as he minces around with his man-bag, all hairstyle and hypochondria. He's partnered by Stephano (Sergey Koleshnya), who bulges meatily out of his wife-beater vest, and who finds a Sumo kindred spirit in Caliban, the island's primitive enslaved occupant. The nimble Ariel, played like a balletic Jeeves, is split up to five ways as the ensemble fracture and amplify Andrey Kuzichev's trim valet presence; this chorus at times provide an appropriately wind-based musical and rhythmic accompaniment to the spirit's mischievous magic.

Igor Yasulovich, whose gravelled voice makes him sound like a bottle of Stolichnaya a night man, makes a particularly prickly Prospero. Autocratic, vengeful, this frayed sorcerer screeches his jaundiced response to daughter Miranda's "brave new world" comment ("'tis new to thee"). Daughter and slaves alike flinch from his touch. At the same time he has moments of crumpled tenderness and vulnerability, and the island's natives look bereft when he and his retinue go: one is confronted with the uncomfortable ambivalences of a dysfunctional, colonial relationship.

In this production Miranda (Anya Khalilulina) runs feral on their adopted island: she growls, bites and scuttles on all fours, a playmate of sorts for Caliban. There's a touch of prelapsarian bliss about the pair, and it is the god-like Prospero alone who is uncomfortable with Miranda's nakedness. When she's tricked out in bridal white for her father's planned political machinations, the necklace he puts about her neck seems to burn like a noose. The play winds up with her being dragged, howling, from her Caliban to begin married life: it sure puts a dampener on The Tempest's tentative perestroika.

This Russian company effect a powerful sea change on the Bard's drama of beached pretenders, and I suspect that Shakespeare, Slav-style, will stick long in the memory. браво!

And, as a tiny postscript, I love the way that the theatre directors come on stage alongside their cast for a bow, something I've seen regularly in productions from continental Europe. It bespeaks an ongoing stewardship of the show, contrasting somewhat with the scarpering metteur-en-scène in this country, who apparently abandons the cast to sink or swim, as it will.

ANTONIO OLMOS / EYEVINE
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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad