All entries for March 2011

March 31, 2011

The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory) @ The Tobacco Factory

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The Comedy of Errors is one of those few plays that fail to disappoint onstage. It's inherently funny, fast, short and complex, and it's hard to remove the basic entertainment value from it. However, the slew of Comedies I've seen over the last few years have shared what is, perhaps, a surprising feature - they've been extremely cruel. From the knockabout farce and chaos of Nancy Meckler's RSC production, to the abbreviated insanity of the Young Person's production, to the clowning of the Welsh School of Drama's version and, finally, the brutal slapstick of Propeller's recent triumph, performances have been marked by a speed and reactionary physicality that, while often illuminating, have perhaps tipped the production too far away from its potential for other readings. Specifically, these Errors' have lacked heart.

Andrew Hilton's new production for the Tobacco Factory redressed the balance considerably. Drawing apparent inspiration from Greg Doran's recent Twelfth Night at the RSC, the production was set in the rough geographical location of the play (Ephesus = Turkey and the immediate Mediterranean surrounds) around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. Locals such as Balthasar and Angelo wore fezes, while the colonial English wore regency dresses or waistcoat/jacket combinations. A violin and piano underscored scene changes marked by fades to black; women sat quietly reading; Ephesus itself was marked by an air of colonial civility and etiquette. It was a far cry from the mad farce that has come to mark productions of this play, instead creating a measured, elegiac atmosphere in which the characters were much more than caricatures, and the levels of farce in the play were differentiated rather than sustained at a single high pitch.

The production started perhaps too slowly, with mournful violin announcing the lights rising on a court scene. David Collins's bedraggled and passive Egeon sat centrally before Paul Currier's beurocratic Duke, while a secretary took notes. The Duke's busy indifference balanced Egeon's despair ideally, but left the character looking rather insignificant. His long tale, delivered as much to the audience surrounding the stage on four sides as to the Duke, was unfortunately dull, an expository sequence that carried little of the stated emotional impact. Egeon's own lack of self-interest fed too far into the delivery, and even the Duke's response spoke more of an awakening of interest rather than anything more powerful.

It took the company a long time to step up the pace from this dour opening. The Syracusians arrived straight from their boat, carrying suitcases and wearing long coats while Dromio (Richard Neale) sang sadly over the music. The establishment of atmosphere was effective, introducing the characters as civilised and generally polite. Dan Winter's Antipholus took time to sit and listen in amusement to his servant's jokes, while Dromio kept up a gentle, reverent patter that kept within the limits of their established relationship.

The first few lines of 3.1 were brought forward so that the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio (Matthew Thomas and Gareth Kennerley) first entered with Angelo and Balthasar immediately after their Syracusian counterparts had left the stage for the first time, bringing out earlier the connections between the two sets of twins. There was a remarkable likeness between the siblings (the Antipholi were tall and wore dark beards; the Dromios were clean-shaven and bald, and a little shorter than their masters) who were only differentiated by slightly different shadings in their clothes, meaning that each appearance of a character was momentarily unsettling for the audience in the best possible way as they tried to work out who they were seeing. They were also surprisingly similar in character: the two Dromios were both plaintive complainers, easily upset by being struck but also prompt to forgive, delivering their jokes as wistful banter. The Antipholi were more clearly defined, though gradually grew more alike: Antipholus of Ephesus was more moody, oscillating between drunken shouting and a depressed attitude; and his more positive brother strode about the stage, interacting happily with people but becoming increasingly unsure as events conspired against him.

As the mistaken identities began to impact, the relationships began to slowly break down. The Dromios became more and more manic, running on and off stage and pre-emptively forestalling criticism by desperately blurting out their information and apologies. Meanwhile, each Antipholus grew more angry. In a neat piece of staging, Antipholus of Syracuse cuffed both Dromios round the ear in the exact same area of the stage in the early scenes, but with the second hit harder than the first, making explicit the shared confusion of the two Dromios and the growing ire of Antipholus. The relative calmness of the production made the violence more startling by contrast: later, Antipholus of Ephesus took the rope given to him by his Dromio, tied a knot in it and began mercilessly flogging the hapless servant, to winces from the audience.

The catalyst in the ongoing elevation of hysteria was Dorothea Myer-Bennett's superlative Adriana. Even in her initial scene, sitting with a book in a high-backed chair while her bookish sister (Ffion Jolly) studied happily, she was chafing and shuffling, finally bursting out into frustration against her absent husband. Luciana's role throughout was to attempt to restrain Adriana's outbursts, but this meek, bespectacled girl had little sway over the far more formidable Adriana, who was barely restrained from punching the Ephesian Dromio in anger. She put on a hat and went out to seek Antipholus herself, and brooked no argument from the confused Syracusian whom she encountered, who obediently followed her home. However, an interpolated sequence saw the lights come up on Adriana, sitting and weeping, while an abashed Antipholus looked apologetically towards her; the implication was that he had refused her advances, and his professed affection for the shocked Luciana in the following scene made this clear. From this point on, Adriana's behaviour was increasingly erratic, culminating in a breathless monologue delivered at high speed to a shocked Duke outside the nunnery which earned her a spontaneous round of applause.

The manners and sensibilities of the main cast were thus established and slowly broken down to great comic effect. Local colour was provided by Kate Kordel's lively and wilful Courtesan, who flirted aggressively with Antipholus of Ephesus and, later, became firm over the point of her money and ring, flouncing and harumphing about the stage and exchanging slyly competitive glances with Adriana during their united assault on Antipholus. Alan Coveney's Angelo was another high point, a weasel of a man with a fez, moustache and glasses. Intrusively jovial, he jabbed both Antipholi in the ribs repeatedly and ingratiated himself with his fellow merchants and workmen; yet when "wronged", betrayed a high-minded sensibility that insisted on being made reparation. One of the standout comedy sequences was the simple debate between he and Antipholus over which of them had the chain, a masterclass of mutual chagrin, rising annoyance and, finally, petty recrimination. Angelo's abashed apologies as his mistakes became clear in the final scene were similarly entertaining.

Only in the doorknocking scene did a metatheatrical comic awareness influence the action. The two Dromios stood at either end of the space, with the empty square of the Tobacco Factory stage deliberately extending the thickness of the door; yet as the Syracusian Dromio spat at the Ephesian Dromio under the door, there was a time delay to the reaction as if the spittle had had to travel the several metres distance. Similarly, both Dromio and Antipholus knocked on thin air, accompanied by sound effects created by one of the other actors; but this culminated in the sound effect deliberately going beyond the number of mimed knocks, causing the actors to pause and look around in confusion. Elsewhere, however, the comedy was reliant on people acting in believable but amusing ways: Antipholus and his friends, for example, sang drunkenly in comically hushed voices before the former's door, evoking a fun sense of manly camaraderie. Dromio's description of Nell was a highlight, using arms and a foreboding voice to illustrate her girth and the terror he felt, which was suitably recaptured in subsequent references to her. Dr. Pinch, meanwhile, was a young man in a waistcoat and tails with a motley crew of assistants bearing straitjackets, into which they forced Antipholus. By this time, the Ephesian Antipholus's patience was at an end, and he broke off flogging Dromio in order to pinch Pinch hard by the ear. His furious rant to the Duke earned a second smattering of applause, the character's instability reaching its peak as he knelt to his lord.

The always-reliable final scene saw characters shrieking, complaining and generally behaving awfully as the multiple plots came together, over which Nicky Goldie's formidable Abbess took control, ordering the reunions and provoking laughs as she revealed the final twist of being Egeon's wife. There was a great deal of innocent comedy found in the reunions - Antipholus of Syracuse, for example, hugged his brother and sister-in-law with an enthusiasm that his brother didn't quite share; and there was an almost tender moment as Antipholus of Ephesus finally paid the Courtesan for his entertainment, to Adriana's glare. The two Dromios taking hands, however, provided a fittingly sweet conclusion to a lovely production that didn't rock the boat or offer exciting new readings of Errors, but did restore some dignity to a play too often treated as straightforward farce, taking as its purpose the exploration of the reactions of real people to inexplicable events.

New Design

Trying out a couple of new layout templates for the blog, after a recent complaint about the dark backdrop. Is this a bit easier on the eyes, do we think?

March 18, 2011

The Tempest (Little Angel Theatre/RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

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What a treat to be back in the Swan. I haven't been inside my favourite Stratford theatre since The Penelopiad back in 2007, and it's wonderful to see it looking (on the inside, at any rate) exactly as it did before the closure, albeit with more comfortable seats. The first full production in there will be Cardenio, but the space has been warming up with some smaller shows including this, a new collaboration between the RSC and the Little Angel Theatre on The Tempest.

This production had a much more substantial human element than the last Little Angel take on Shakespeare, the excellent Venus and Adonis. Here, all of the human characters were played by costumed humans (although Miranda did carry a small doll version of herself) in a relatively straight, though highly edited, version aimed at children. Against a backdrop of curved rocks (arranged as if the inverted skeleton of some enormous sea beast), the cast wore traditional period dress evoking received images of the characters: David Fielder's Prospero wore flowing robes and a full beard; the courtiers rich, red robes and headwear; the clowns doublet and hose.

The text was heavily cut for its young audience, with sections of new verse and songs added to explicate plot elements more clearly. This had the additional effect of shifting the emphasis of the play towards simpler and more conservative elements, such as the Miranda/Ferdinand romance. In a lovely scene, the two carried logs jointly, danced and flirted innocently, while the rest of the cast sat at the back of the stage and sang a gently mocking love song ("Is it love?" "Could be" "Possibly" "Might well be" "It isn't entirely unlikely" etc.). This sweet sequence exaggerated the centrality of the love plot in relation to the other subplots, which were both heavily cut, and provided the main source of investment. Fielder's Prospero wept openly as he finally gifted Ferdinand his daughter.

The appeal towards traditional settings and conservative priorities is, unfortunately, endemic of children's theatre. In striving for accessibility, inevitably and understandably, productions reach back towards received images of a play, banking on a universal base level of recognisability. While the appeal is obvious, making use of stock types and childrens' burgeoning awareness, it can have the unfortunate consequence of retaining outmoded values. I'm thinking in particular of this production's Caliban, a man-sized puppet voiced by Jonathan Dixon who was a cross between an ape and a turtle, and spoke slowly and simply. The image of Caliban as the mentally-deficient man-monkey throwback, in my view, hits too closely towards the old racial stereotyping that used to inform Calibans, and it was a disappointment to see this on the RSC stage. Ariel, meanwhile, was a green pixie, a couple of feet high, who was carried around the stage in the act of flight, aiming for the ephemerality and lightness of the spirit.

The puppet performers carried their characters about the stage, pushing the bodies forward to act the words which were spoken openly by the handler. This was especially effective in the case of Caliban, whose sheer size and physicality allowed him to interact fully with the other characters, particularly as he and Stephano sat down next to each other and Caliban put his arms conspiratorially around his new king. Caliban was primarily comic, with a puppyish eagerness to please and a habit of growling deeply when resentful. While he was prodigiously strong (repeatedly flattening Stephano with thumps to his back), this monster was ultimately fearful and pathetic, and easily cowed.

The remainder of the puppet content was used for magical spectacle, aside from the seagulls that gently flew round the stage at the play's beginning and end. An unfurling cloth banner allowed for two instances of shadow play - one with wire models of Ferdinand and Miranda in place of the masque scene, and one to reveal them in silhouette playing chess in the cave. The former of these was particularly effective, beginning with Prospero opening a book with reflective pages, which he directed to throw patterns against the cloth behind which the silhouettes slowly appeared. Ferdinand and Miranda approached their doppelgangers in awe and slowly began performing the same dance, coming closer to kiss. Prospero's interruption of this gentle sequence was especially jarring.

The puppets were also used horrifically. Three large covered platters were placed in corners of the stage for the "men of sin", which they cautiously raised. From beneath emerged three monstrously coloured and huge fish, which writhed and threatened as Ariel's voice boomed across the stage, in a genuinely scary sequence accompanied by thunder and lightning. Less scary, but amusingly effective, were the two dresses lowered from the ceiling for Trinculo and Stephano to marvel at. The two danced with their new "women" until the dresses took on lives of their own, hovering above Stephano and knocking him to his back in what he took to be a sexual game. Suddenly, the performers inverted the dresses, and the enormous heads of rabid dogs emerged, barking and snapping at the terrified clowns.

Brett Brown's Stephano was the highlight among the performers, a heavy-drinking, swaggering figure who peed into buckets, vomitted into audience laps and wandered through the audience winking and snatching programmes. He was accompanied by the hard-working Ruth Calkin who took on the bulk of the singing as well as playing Trinculo and Gonzalo, and the joking relationship with the foolish Caliban acted to break up the more serious action. The lords were more conventional, acting largely to keep the plot ticking along but making little greater impact, even though Christopher Staines did some nice work as a smug Antonio.

It was the relationship between Prospero and Anneika Rose's Miranda that was most effective. Rose played Miranda as a wide-eyed innocent, again in line with traditional readings, but treated her father with a mixture of reverence and hurt confusion. Fielder, meanwhile, played Prospero with surprising range, including an avuncular jocularity towards Ferdinand and tender affection for Ariel. which saw him jokingly shake his head at the question "Do you love me, master?" before smiling and replying "Dearly". Yet there was an edge to the character too. The "We are such things as dreams are made on" speech was delivered in a tone of deep sarcasm and anger, to the confusion of his daughter and son-in-law; and at other times a bitterness emerged from the character. Upon breaking his staff across his knee, a visible weight was lifted from him, and he straightened up, smiling, before running in joy from the island. Ariel grew wings and began flying among the seagulls, while the abashed Caliban returned to the stage and grunted in pleasure as one of the gulls nestled on his head. The lights faded on a simple, conventional and lovely version of the play that showcased the beautiful art of the Little Angel Theatre. It may have been behind its time as a reading, but played to purpose effectively.

March 17, 2011

Hamlet The Clown Prince (The Company Theatre) @ Warwick Arts Centre Theatre

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This was my third Hamlet in a year with a running time under two hours, which is a trend I'm hugely appreciative of. This time it was a rare UK performance for Mumbai's Company Theatre, with its brilliant and hugely entertaining take on the play through the medium of clowning.

Performed in English and "Ghibberish", a highly articulate but nonsensical babble which continually interrupted the lines and underscored frantic mime, Rajat Kapoor's production burlesqued Shakespeare with all the love and respect that informs the best parodies. Actors poked fun at the lines, the references, the structures and the style of the play, yet Shakespeare's words provided an anchor that rooted the chaos in a meaningful structure, guiding the clowns' own stories to a point.

The conceit was a troupe of clowns deciding to put on Hamlet instead of one of their more usual song and dance shows, with mixed results. Atul Kumar's Soso was the star clown, a droll and often miserable creature who growled at the audience for laughing inappropriately and maintained a breathless sarcatic patter throughout. The ringmaster was Sujay Saple's Laertes, an impresario desperately trying to keep the plot on track and jealous of his lead's arrogance. Nemo, played by Namit Das, was the frustrated-actor-turned-clown who wanted Kumar's role, and kept thrusting himself into the limelight. Puja Sarup's Buzo was Soso's wife, a heavy drinker and operatic diva who couldn't resist making snipes at her husband; and Fifi (two names were listed in the programme, Kalki Koechlin and Rachel D'Souza, though I don't know which of these was tonight's actor) was the new addition to the troupe, a playful innocent with a temper. Finally, Fido (Neil Bhoopalam) was the Clown among the Clowns, a lively and good-natured buffoon with a plethora of contemporary references, some funky dance moves and a tendency to lapse into modern colloquialisms.

The performance of Hamlet by these clowns was hugely truncated, and often in the form of commentary that said more about the clowns than about the characters. Most explicitly, Soso and Buzo's marital discord lent a very specific inflection to their performances as Hamlet and Gertrude, with Buzo accusing Soso loudly of lacking commitment (cf Hamlet's indecision) and the rest of the cast commenting loudly on "Hamlet's" inappropriate love for his mother. Polonius's verbosity, meanwhile, became an extension of Nemo's professional frustration, an attempt to drag out his scenes for as long as possible. One of the most effective clowning moments came as Hamlet sneaked up behind Polonius and wrapped gaffer tape around his face, clamping his jaw up and forcing him to perform in mime for several subsequent scenes.

The production started with the lights slowly coming up on the figure of Hamlet, standing in a spotlight in full clown make-up and holding a briefcase which he kept throughout the production (the impression being of the itinerant traveller). The other cast members emerged from the shadows to throw dust in his face, add flowers to his lapel, slap him etc. (very reminiscent of U2's Numb, actually) in a montage sequence of visual motifs that would recur throughout the play. In a stunning sequence of Ghibberish, with enough English thrown in to give a sense of structure, Hamlet then proceeded to monologue the entire story of the play. As an induction, this witty sequence acted to draw the audience into the play's language and curious means of communication. The unintelligible words became a communicative bridge, creating a dialectic of active interpretation with an audience that relied on a shared willingness to find meaning.

Knowledge of Hamlet was presupposed, and made explicit when Soso arrived late for the play itself, citing the difficulty of finding Warwick Arts Centre and being distracted by the centre's director. Critiquing the other clowns' choice of play, he offered a series of 'spoilers' to the audience, which the others attempted to counter by accusing him of lying "It's a happy play!" Even once the play itself had begun, the company freewheeled through the plot, pointing out to the audience how quickly they were doing it and briefly mentioning the scenes (inevitably involving Polonius) that they had cut out. There was no Fortinbras, no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no gravedigging and very little of Laertes; Hamlet here primarily offered a structure for looking at simple relationships of love and family.

It was in Hamlet's relationship to the women that the play's heart was revealed, albeit always with an undertone of self-mocking laughter. The dynamic between Soso and Buzo was affectionate and abusive, and the latter's descent into incapable drunkenness had its moving elements. By the closet scene, she was no longer capable of remembering her lines and instead began flirting with audience members, much to Soso's annoyance. Her attempts to find a sozzled dignity in Gertrude's regality were particularly entertaining, while also giving Hamlet a genuine barrier to re-engagement with his mother, whose loyalties between position and maternal responsibility were problematically divided. With the innocent Ophelia, on the other hand, a more romantic strain was introduced. The two saw each other across the stage, the lights turned to red and the two began walking towards each other in slow motion. As he reached her, without missing a beat, Soso slid his briefcase onto the floor and used it as a step to draw level with the much taller Fifi's face for a tender kiss. This was the beauty of the clowning aesthetic - it allowed for moments of true pathos without ever descending into mawkishness or irony; the absurdity of people was foregrounded in the kindest possible way.

Fido was the clown who most embraced the comic metatheatricality of the enterprise. Accompanied by his pet egg (which hatched partway through into a chicken glove puppet), he laughed at himself constantly, breaking out into dance and controlling the apparatus of the theatre (for Claudius's plot with Laertes, he shouted "Conspiracy light!" and ran into the obedient spotlight that appeared). His Ghost was forbidden from speaking, and so he instead performed in a series of dance manoeuvres and a game of charades to communicate his intentions. His constant references to pop culture included extensive discussion of The Lion King's relationship to Hamlet and self-conscious quoting from The Dark Knight, drawing attention to his Joker-ish make-up.

To describe the joking, however, does a disservice to a production which fell or rested on rapport. A hugely appreciative audience engaged wholeheartedly, warming to the clowns' ribbing and embracing the chaos. Whether it was Polonius getting bored and wandering off the stage instead of pretending to be dead; a random poll of the crowd to ask "what's your be-or-not-be dilemma?"; or Hamlet enjoying the fact that the rest of the cast had to be frozen in position while he rambled on in soliloquy, the entire piece was built around a shared willingness to entertain and enjoy that relocated Hamlet within the storytelling mode adopted by Two Gents in their Zimbabwean Hamlet a couple of months ago. If the play is now being rediscovered as a series of recognisable and universal motifs that serve to authorise and structure new stories and improvisations, that can only be a good thing in my eyes.

This wasn't all about chaos, however. Fifi's Ophelia was beautiful in her madness; she performed simple magic tricks, revealing flowers from her sleeve which she then threw down to audience members (complimenting them on their catching ability). As the rest of the cast watched and cried out, she then slowly kneeled down for her drowning, the stillness of her body a startling contrast to the pace elsewhere. A similar image closed the play. After a frenetic sword fight, the stage was littered with bodies, and Hamlet was once more standing alone. Gesturing to the bodies around him (who glugged, burped or twitched appropriately), Hamlet pointed out the futility which, he argued, had been present from the beginning. As the lights slowly faded, he reminded us what he had promised to tell us and, with nothing remaining, "the rest is silence". Followed immediately by a chaotic, clowning curtain call, the juxtaposition of stillness and silliness remained the production's most powerful aspect, reminding us once more of Hamlet's inherent metatheatricality and continual ability to be reappropriated.

March 11, 2011

Antonio's Revenge (Edward's Boys) @ King Edward VI Grammar School

Perry Mills and his boys are fast becoming the stuff of legend. A cut above your average drama society, Edward's Boys are currently ploughing their way through the dramatic canon of the early modern childrens' companies. Obscure plays by Lyly, Middleton, Marston and others, originally written to be performed at the indoor playhouses by specially-trained youths, occasionally grace the modern stage in adult productions, but Mills's productions form a much more interesting sustained research project, attempting to capture something of the resonance and challenges of the plays as performed by the types of body and experience that they were written for. I've previously reviewed their Endymion and A Mad World, My Masters, and this year's production was John Marston's Antonio's Revenge, which will play on Sunday at Middle Temple Hall, sure to be a wonderful experience.

This was the first time Perry and company have tackled a tragedy, which created a new set of questions. Previously, the approach of the productions has been playful and self-aware, drawing attention to the experimental and unusual nature of the plays. With Antonio, however, there was less opportunity for playfulness, and the production didn't pursue it. The formality of the company was established in costume - each boy wore school shirt and tie under a boiler suit, creating a uniform identity over which were placed representative costume elements such as wigs, wrap-around skirts and clown noses. The metatheatricality was thus implicit rather than overstated; rather than draw attention to the young bodies of the actors, or the cross-gender casting, the actors simply played the characters straight.

In the darkened space of the school's huge gymnasium, the audience clustered around a central raised stage. The close focus in the centre of a large space gave a cathedral-like quality to the setting, which the company fully exploited. Actors walked slowly around the furthest extremes of the gym, barely visible in the shadows, and often interjecting with shouts and curses. Galleries along the longest edges provided an occasional space for more action - Feliche's body hung in a window in a distant corner, while Piero sometimes observed from above. Small boys in priestly habit led slow processions and carried candles, giving the sense of an ongoing series of funereal marches. The ceremonial atmosphere was accentuated by some beautiful singing, capturing one of the defining features of the boys' plays.

The austerity and seriousness of the show did not lend itself, however, to accessibility. Antonio's Revenge is a sequel, and there is a great deal of reference to action from before the start of the play. Having not read it for a couple of years, I confess to struggling to keep up with the plot. In many ways, the decision not to dumb down or over-explicate the action was a brave and respectful one, and demonstrated just how skillful the boys were, but greater emphasis on the expository dialogue would have been an aid to greater enjoyment.

The boys were wonderful throughout, showing a maturity of response and understanding that rendered and patronising responses unnecessary. I don't wish to single out or critique all the performers (among the big cast and a great many interchangable Italian lords, that would be too difficult), but the play was strongly anchored by its two leads. Jeremy Franklin as the villainous Piero was rivetting from the moment he stepped onto the stage with bloody hands, manipulating his victims and betraying his assistants with glee, wit and verve. George Matts's Antonio, meanwhile, was a compelling junior Hamlet, angst-ridden and angry, and increasingly terrifying in his acts of violence. His murder of the tiny Julio (George Hodson) was one of the production's most powerful moments, the terrified child pleading with Antonio while the Ghost of Andrugio, standing behind Antonio, screamed "Revenge!" It was in moments like this that the relative size of the boys became hugely important, adding pathos to the death; and Julio himself joined Andrugio in ghostly form, silently accusing his murderer.

Dominik Kurzeja as the bloodied Ghost was a formidable presence, stalking the auditorium and glaring at those around him. This Ghost was all hatred, and the success of Antonio and the conspirators in their plot gave a complex tone to the play, seemingly justifying the descent into acts of cruelty. Antonio's moral plummet was mirrored in the coolness of James Locker's Alberto, Ted Clarke's increasingly embitterred and astonishingly articulate Pandulpho, and Joshua Danks-Smith's amusing Balurdo. In the Clown role, Danks-Smith took the bulk of the play's humour and metatheatricality, wearing increasingly ludicrous facial prosthetics and bumbling through his interactions. As he was thrown into the dungeon, this clown stopped laughing. Standing behind the other conspirators during the masque, the steeliness in his eyes was one of the play's most powerful comments on the transformative nature of revenge.

The women were all well-performed, especially Alex Lucas's Maria, whose depressed passivity next to the dynamic Piero evoked audience sympathies. The cross-dressing was an unremarkable aspect of the production, rather than pointed up as unusual or transgressive. Harry Bowen's Mellida had less to do, but took a key role in the production's most moving scene, as Antonio sat atop a box with a barred window, from which Mellida made her complaints, acting only with voice and hands.

The formality and constant motion of the tragedy kept events moving towards an expectedly bloody conclusion, in which Piero was stabbed multiple times in a surprisingly graphic scene, a bleak conclusion to a very bleak play. If I have a complaint, it's that the approach to this conclusion was rather straightforward; the ability of the boys in previous productions to draw out contemporary resonance and youthful meanings was one of the strongest aspects of the comedies, and I would have been excited to see something of the "boyish" response to the violence and formality of a very different kind of play. As it was, though, we were given a consummately professional and finely-realised production of a very rarely-performed play. It'll be fascinating to see where the boys take us next.

March 03, 2011

The Tempest (Cheek by Jowl/Chekhov International Drama Festival) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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The Russians are back. Cheek by Jowl's Russian wing have previously brought us wonderful versions of Twelfth Night, Three Sisters and Boris Gudonov, and a return to Shakespeare was extremely welcome. It's a pleasure to report that, while the English ensemble's Macbeth (still touring) was quite the disappointment, the Russians once again proved that there's plenty of fresh insight to be gleaned from the old plays.

Cheek by Jowl's recent tendency has been towards greater levels of deconstruction, with actors increasingly addressing the audience directly, performing actions without contact and chopping up the dialogue. The Tempest, by contrast, saw actors once more performing scenes together in practical blocking (I shy away from saying "realistic"), building relationships and rhythms that, for the most part, rendered the surtitles superfluous. This was as clear a production of the play as one could hope for, while also making innovative decisions.

Rather than adopt the (post)colonial narrative that almost inevitably underpins modern productions of the play, Declan Donnellan instead drew on Russian history to locate the play at the collision between communism and capitalism. Igor Yasulovich's Prospero was first and foremost an old man, in shirt sleeves and braces, who frequently resorted to mild violence and barely potent bluster rather than magic. Played as a Russian patriarch, then, his rule on the island was read as his attempts to control and educate his extended 'family', moulding them into behaviours that went against their basic nature. His tenure on the island represented his attempts to form a society according to his own (outdated) ideology, the negative practical application of the utopia imagined by a lively, jovial Gonzalo (Alexander Lenkov) earlier in the play.

The struggle to rule was evident from the beginning in his relationship with Anya Khalilulina's Miranda. This Miranda, despite a veneer of civilisation, was near-feral. Often on all fours, arching her back and leaning suspiciously towards new arrivals, she alternated between violence (biting Ferdinand on the leg, punching her father hard) and timidity (hiding behind her father's legs). Prospero in turn used a mixture of tough love (striking her down as she pummelled him) and touching concern - after putting her to sleep, he knelt over her for a long time, stroking her hair and gazing at her fondly. His attempts to civilise this wild creature included a long sequence washing her as she struggled, taking care to get behind the ears and the back of the neck. Later, she appeared uncomfortable in a simple wedding dress, throwing her bouquet petulantly to the ground. Her resistance to his attempts to force her into conservative modes of behaviour was a constant.

Fascinatingly, isolation from men had not taught this Miranda innocence, in the sense of demure or coy reticence. Rather, and more interestingly, it meant that she had not learnt reservation. On meeting Yan Ilves's Ferdinand she could not restrain herself from touching him - slapping, nuzzling, sniffing, she drew him into her own physicality. This recently liberated Ferdinand, in a shocking moment of what can only be described as colonial arrogance, began to loosen his trousers, pinning her down in preparation to rape her, to the watching Prospero's horror and to the unwitting Miranda's joyful laughter. Prospero's insertion of himself between them was greeted with disappointment by both, and they continued to try to touch one another until he was frozen by Ariel. Similarly, as Caliban entered for his first appearance, Miranda casually took her shirt off as a prelude to washing, to Prospero's horror as he tried to re-cover her. His attempts to civilise her became a kind of constraint.

Prospero's didacticism reached its apogee in the masque sequence, refigured as reminiscent of communist propaganda. Against the bare white back wall, black and white footage of happy farm workers was shown, and the three "goddesses" emerged from doors as buxom masked country girls, with sheathes of corn and bushels of apples. The goddesses sang their blessings, then gave way to a dancing chorus of sickle-carrying male farmhands, among whom Miranda and Ferdinand danced happily to the sounds of roaring crowds. Then, as if an afterthought, Prospero murmured "Stop". He then shouted it more loudly. The music suddenly cut out, the dancers stopped and everyone looked at him in bemusement. He shouted it again, and the stage lights and house lights snapped on, and a stagehand appeared with a questioning shrug, as the actors looked out at the audience. Prospero had stopped both the masque and the play itself, bringing everything to a crashing halt; both politics and the artifice of performance itself undercut in a moment of stark realisation. Prospero's subsequent soliloquy, delivered as the actor to the audience, was one of the production's most powerful moments, an exchange of honesty and appeal to human sensibility that transcended the play's politics and aesthetic. While this Prospero was reasonably unsympathetic, in this speech the actor forged a genuine connection with his auditors.

While the interruption of the communist propaganda was the clearest statement of political intent, exposing the idealised society as nothing more than a facade, a similar interest in the integration of the worker characterised much of the rest of the production. Alexander Feklistov's Caliban was a worker rather than a monster, a slow and burly man in overalls who grumbled as he worked. In a production where Ferdinand was introduced as a rapist, Caliban's tender relationship with Miranda was surprisingly sweet - the two joked and flirted, and she protested loudly at her father's offstage whipping of him. The analogue between his in-grown drudgery and Prospero's slow breaking of Ferdinand was pointed up by the Cheek by Jowl trick of juxtaposing the end of one scene with the beginning of the next, allowing the drunken and newly liberated Caliban to dance around Ferdinand as he carried his burden on his back. We saw in Ferdinand what had happened to Caliban; immediately prior to the wedding, Prospero struck the exhausted prince to the floor; then, while he lay there sobbing, the older man comforted him, brought in Miranda, then stripped, washed and dresed him, remaking the prince in his own image.

With Caliban this had failed, however, and instead the worker began making men in his own image. Hidden under a cloak thrown down from a raised platform by Ariel, Caliban was stumbled upon by the comically effeminate Ilya Ilin as Trinculo (sobbing as he was followed around by Ariel, who continually emptied a watering can over his head and threw unsuspected buckets of water at him) and the burly Sergey Koleshnya as Stephano. The business of two men hiding under the gaberdine was replaced by the two men sitting on top of the mound, from which a hand periodically emerged to steal a shot of vodka. The drunken Caliban became a revolutionary, opening his mouth for more alcohol and leading the comedians in song. Later, he stripped to the waist and daubed himself with warpaint, before initiating Stephano in the same way, turning the two men into visual twins. This was undone, however, in an inversion of the cultural transaction. Upon arriving in Prospero's cell, a projection showed a lush boutique shop, and fine clothes, watches, mobile phones and accessories were wheeled in. The deeply materialist Trinculo went berserk for the beautiful clothes, while Stephano fully indulged himself also. In an hysterical scene, they discovered a credit card and machine with unlimited funds, which both men played with (Trinculo experiencing an orgasm as the receipt went through). They then introduced Caliban to the machine, inducting him into the joys of capitalism, at which point Prospero entered with his baying hounds.

Prospero's power was realised by Ariel (Andrey Kuzichev), who wore black shirt and trousers and was accompanied for much of the production by four doppelgangers, who played music and echoed his lines. Ariel was a calm, emotionless presence, unshowy in his power (apart from one fantastic image where he opened a door to reveal Ferdinand awash in blue light, upside down and slowly spinning, as if completely submerged in water) and attentive to his master. The early power relations between Prospero and him seemed initially biased in favour of Ariel, who needed to be called several times before arriving, but then Ariel's anguish and pain as Prospero reminded him of Sycorax were manifested in an out of control spin and clutching of the head. There was a sense of humour to many of Ariel's interventions. He played the log(s) that Ferdinand carried, keeping himself ramrod straight as the prince picked him up and carried him across the stage, before sneakily standing up and walking back to his original position while Ferdinand looked the other way, to the latter's increased exasperation. Eventually, Miranda helped him roll Ariel across the stage, resisting the spirit's attempts to change the direction of his roll. At other times, the five Ariels merely wandered about the stage, pouring water for thirsty lords and playing for Caliban. The "men of sin" speech saw three of them appear as copies of Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian on a high platform, appearing above a projection of a court scene.

The lords themselves, as is usual for a production, were less spectacular, but all extremely well performed. Alonso (Mikhail Zhigalov) and Sebastian (Pavel Kuzmin) had an already troubled relationship in which Alonso repeatedly threated to hit his nervous younger brother, who was a blameful coward (as he handled the knife to kill Gonzalo, he whimpered pathetically). Evgeny Samarin's Antonio, meanwhile, was a smoking discontent, happy to sit upstage and await his moments, while Alexander Lenkov's Gonzalo was an unusually vibrant and entertaining figure, strong and hearty.

The play's conclusion brought everything together in fitting manner, with the tension between Prospero and Antonio particularly emphasised in a snarl of disapproval from the new Duke of Milan. Most powerful, however, were the hints of long-term damage caused by Prospero's time on the island. Lining up to leave via a back door, the characters waved or shrugged one by one before disappearing, including Miranda. However, after the last of the lords had left, Caliban howled. Miranda ran back in, crying and wailing, and threw herself into Caliban's arms. Ferdinand chased her back in, and husband and father together tore the two apart, and Miranda was carried off flailing and protesting. Less violently, but more movingly, Ariel accepted his freedom quietly; then, after Prospero left with his suitcase, he looked about in some confusion. Caliban was sat on the floor, rocking gently; Ariel sat next to him, and put his hand on his head. This touching image implied yet again the level of damage caused by Prospero's attempts to control his "subjects" - Miranda was forced away to a new life against her will, while Caliban and Ariel were lost without their orders, although Ariel's gesture of compassion sounded a note of hope. Prospero re-entered for his epilogue, putting a hand on Ariel's shoulder, and the rest of the cast followed suit, Miranda sitting at his feet in an evocation of the family photograph. It was a simple suggestion of healing to come, a positive grace note at the end of a powerful and game-changing production.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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