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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Why divided Brussels is the perfect hideout for jihadists

Counterterrorism requires on-the-ground policing in tandem with centralised control. Belgium’s fragmented political set-up is not conducive.

In Belgium, Santa Claus comes to town early. Children get their presents on 6 December, so that, on Christmas Eve, parents and grandparents can devote themselves single-mindedly to eating and drinking.

Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, arrives, logically enough, on the feast day of St Nicholas. He is dressed in the cope and mitre of a bishop rather than the fur-trimmed flannel of his anglophone counterpart and has come, not from the North Pole, but from Spain (a throwback to the Spanish Netherlands).

This year, however, there is no telling if St Nicholas will be allowed in or instead kept in a holding bay at Antwerp docks. And, if he does get through, will anyone be around to greet him? Last Saturday, Brussels was put into a state of suspended animation. In the days after the Paris atrocities, connections had been established between the perpetrators and the Brussels district of Molenbeek, but a series of raids had failed to locate Salah Abdeslam, who, it was believed, had escaped from Paris and headed to Brussels.

In response to a warning of a “very serious and imminent” threat, the city was subjected to what Twitter calls #LockdownBrussels. Soldiers patrolled the streets. Armoured vehicles parked outside train stations and central squares. Markets, sports fixtures and concerts were cancelled. The Metro was stopped and bars were instructed to close early.

For the most part, residents greeted the developments with their customary phlegmatic good humour, comforting themselves that the weather was so bad it was good to stay indoors. But when the government announced that public transport, schools and kindergartens would not open on Monday, grumbling intensified. How long could this departure from normality be sustained? On Monday, having chaired the national security council, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, announced that the security threat level would be maintained for another week but public transport, schools and other public buildings would be reopened progressively from Wednesday, once defences were in place.

Before the lockdown, I made myself unpopular with the locals by writing that Belgium’s political set-up is not conducive to counterterrorism, which requires good on-the-ground policing joined to centralised, specialist expertise. Beset with linguistic and territorial divisions between the Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia) – a roughly 60-40 split – the political class embarked more than 40 years ago on successive waves of decentralisation, weakening the federal government, pushing responsibility and money down to the regions but also to the provinces and 589 communes (units of local government). In 1989, Brussels became a stand-alone bilingual region between Flanders and Wallonia, a point of uneasy stalemate: West Berlin in Belgium’s linguistic cold war.

Although Brussels is the capital of Flanders, Dutch speakers are outnumbered by French speakers and by the large ethnic minorities from North Africa and Turkey. (Before Wallonia’s coal and steel industries declined in the 1960s and 1970s, companies encouraged migration from the Mediterranean basin.) Most Dutch speakers who work in Brussels commute from outside and so pay their taxes elsewhere. The division of federal income between the regions is fiercely contested. To make matters worse, this city of only 1.2 million is subdivided into 19 uneven communes. Their populations vary from 21,000 to 175,000 and their size from little more than a square kilometre, in St Josse and Koekelberg, to 23 square kilometres in the leafy Uccle – home to so many Parisians escaping the high wealth taxes of France.

Some town halls provide efficient services; others have become bywords for mismanagement and worse. Above them, the regional government, weakened by factionalism between and within language groups, is incapable of imposing uniformity. It was no surprise, then, to see confusion and disunity under lockdown: mixed messages from mayors and ministers over whether public crèches would be open, how many terrorists were at large and when the Metro might reopen. Brussels residents are, however, for the most part tolerant and resourceful.

Economic and security logic might suggest that, if and when the threat subsides, Belgium would address dysfunctions in Brussels. Sadly, they are hardwired into the Belgian political settlement of the past half-century. Even Santa Claus would be hard-pressed to find a way out. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State