In its 400th anniversary year, there always seems to be a new production of The Tempest on the horizon. Post-colonial interpretations are particularly popular and this Russian production has its own political slant dominated by the conflict between communism and capitalism, in which each is as unappealing and corrupt as the other.
Declan Donnellan’s production (performed by Cheek by Jowl’s Russian ensemble with surtitles) is an example of stripping too far back. While there are some striking details, it’s ultimately monochromatic in soul as well as appearance, with few hints of the enchantment embedded in the words. Even the music delivered by Ariel’s four doppelgangers is atonal. Whilst it is extra demanding keeping an eye on the surtitles as well as the action on stage, the problems lie with the clinical staging that feels like an academic exercise. This coldness transcends language barriers.
Prospero’s island (designed by Nick Ormerod) is a barren place consisting of three doors, a few upturned crates and buckets and a sprinkling of sand. The main substance on stage is water, which is used for physical and spiritual cleansing, refreshment and torment. Stage managing the proceedings is Igor Yasulovich’s Prospero, a man very much in his own world, with some highly dubious recollections about the past.
The production is most interesting and effective in its portrayal of the often-overlooked role of Miranda (played here by Anya Khalilulina). Having been brought up in isolation, she’s not portrayed as a princess waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince, rather as a near feral child with a penchant for temper tantrums and biting; she bitterly opposes her father’s attempt to make her appear more feminine with a pearl necklace when Ferdinand (Yan Ilves) arrives. Upon sighting Ferdinand, she leaps on him like an excited puppy, and taking advantage of her enthusiasm and his position as a prince, he tries to rape her. Prospero’s decision to enslave him isn’t a whim, it’s entirely justified.
Andrey Kuzichev’s Ariel is uncannily similar to Christian Camargo’s in Sam Mendes’s recent production at the Old Vic last year, dressed in an identical black suit and likewise delivers his lines in a manner that’s probably supposed to be distractedly ethereal, but lacks any animation. There’s a guttural Caliban from Alexander Feklistov, the embodiment of uneducated thuggishness. The scene in which Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano are reduced to raptures when raiding Prospero’s stash of designer clothes and genuflect over the miracle of a credit card machine quickly becomes silly, as well as jarring with the fact that Prospero has just conjured up the wedding masque, which involves scary head-scarved babushkas dancing to a propaganda video extolling the virtues of the Soviet Union.
Surely the magic doesn’t have to be sacrificed to make way for The Tempest’s unsettling elements; they ought to be bound up in each other. Magic in itself is a complicated thing, and Cheek by Jowl aren’t doing the play any favours by sacrificing the sense of enchantment in favour of an interpretation that’s simultaneously pared too far down and overloaded with the director’s own impositions on the text.