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.