Thursday, March 03, 2011

Episode 892: Cheek By Jowl's The Tempest

Just got a reminder that I'm totally meant to have written two film reviews for the Student Cinema and e-mailed them yesterday! Fortunately, one of the reviews has already been written, it just never got used last term because the schedule changed. Anyway, I've just come back from Cheek By Jowl's fantastic production of The Tempest. It's the fourth production by their Russian company. The text they used was definitely edited, but the way it was used definitely made me want to re-read the play, which was the first of Shakespeare's I ever read. I'm just going to point out a couple of things I really liked about the production. Firstly, how sheerly physical it was, right from the get-go. While the cast generally excelled at incorporating their bodies into the performance, for me the most impressive example of this came from Andrey Kuzichev's Ariel. Even in the way he walked onstage, he had the kind of control I usually associate with dancers. I can't remember if he's meant to be onstage as much as he is (will keep an eye out for that when I re-read), but he was a joy to watch, as were the other actors playing spirits, who also doubled with him as musicians. It was brilliant, whenever they came on.

Related to this aspect of physical control was the scene where Yan Ilves's Ferdinand had to pick up Kuzichev as a log and repeatedly carry him across the stage. Not only was it hilarious as Kuzichev kept getting up and returning to his original position, it was amazing how he landed so gracefully each time Ilves rolled him off his back. This sequence segued into a mildly gratuitous bit where Ilves stripped naked and was cleaned up by Igor Yasulovich's Prospero. I say 'mildly' because it made sense within the narrative at that point, but it's still not the sort of thing you usually get, even in theatre. I swear that if you'd been sitting far enough along the sides of the Arts Centre Theatre, and Ilves haven't been using his hands, you could've seen everything. There was also a moment in the first scene when Anya Khalilulina's Miranda had her breasts out, although the comparative level of exposure suggests there's still some sexism here when it comes to baring skin. So a man's butt and complete nudity are acceptable, but the same doesn't go for the only woman in the play?

Anyway, as a corollary I should also say here that the costume choices were really clever. They were in modern dress, but the state of the characters' costumes also indicated what I saw as their position on the savage/civilised continuum. Notably, the state of everyone's clothes changes throughout, except for Caliban, Prospero's 'thing of darkness', who symbolised for me the untameable wildness of the island that resisted Prospero's full mastery. There was also a funny moment when Stephano and Trinculo showed up at Prospero's dwelling, which was promptly transformed by the spirits into a sort of high-end boutique. This allowed for a moment of meta-theatre when they were talking to each other on their mobiles, and Trinculo (finally) notices the Duke and everyone standing around him, so when he breaks off, Stephano asks if he can't talk because he's in a theatre. There was an earlier moment of meta-theatre when Prospero yelled 'Stop!', the house lights came on and a technician came out from backstage, whereupon Prospero delivered a speech ('Our revels now are ended') that in this context, deliberately called attention to the fictitious nature of what was being played out for our pleasure onstage.

The production also emphasised how unsavoury his desire for control was. So when Ariel entreats Prospero to take pity on the Duke and his companions who are at his mercy on the island, and Prospero says that if a spirit like Ariel can feel such emotion, then so could he, I found it a bit hard to believe he was being sincere. Ditto at the very end when Ariel asks if Prospero, his master, loves him, and receives an affirmative answer. The match between Ferdinand and Miranda is also problematic. Ferdinand starts out essentially looking like he's happy to have sex with the first 'maid' he meets on the island, despite, you know, just having been shipwrecked. Miranda subsequently seems happy with marriage, but at the very end, after she has been packed off to Italy with everyone else, she runs back in and leaps on Caliban, whom we've already been informed at the start has once tried to violate her. Ferdinand dashes back in and forcibly pries her from Caliban, dragging her out screaming in anguish. It's profoundly unsettling, and jars with the comic resolution that has just happened.

The ending of the play was also handled interestingly. Prospero is shown as leaving the island, having freed Ariel, and what looked to me like having removed Caliban's capacity for speech. So that leaves Ariel and Caliban onstage, the former sitting down and laying a hand on Caliban's head. This gesture of tenderness mirrors an earlier one where he lays a hand on the Duke's back, who is lamenting the supposed death of Ferdinand to Prospero. (This in turn echoes Ariel's almost laying a hand to comfort Ferdinand much earlier on, having been prevented by a glare from Prospero. It also has a parallel in his almost touching Miranda, as she is dragged out by Ferdinand.) Prospero came back out to deliver his epilogue, resting a hand on Ariel's shoulder, so that master and servants are connected in a chain. Surrounding them, the rest of the cast emerges from backstage, as Prospero declares the loss of his magic and calls for the audience's applause to set him free. Naturally, that's exactly what we did, and not a few people even gave the cast a standing ovation. This is one of those productions that I would totally watch again if I could, and I'm actually quite jealous that Eugene is seeing it in London in April. For free.

1 comment:

Celsa said...

This is awesome!