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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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.