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.

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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left