I admit it – I am an immense fan of Declan Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl. Their last visit to the Playhouse (Andromache in 2009) is still seared on my memory. Ordinarily I would be excited beyond words at the prospect of a new production but as they have chosen The Tempest (which is one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays) and are performing in Russian, I approached the theatre with a slight air of trepidation.
I need not have worried – the production is mesmerising. The audience is held spellbound as the story of Prospero is unfolded before us. Donnellan is a master of storytelling – every nuance of the narrative is presented with absolute clarity. Even without knowing a single word of Russian, it is more than possible to follow the action on stage.
Exploiting the strengths of his Russian ensemble, Donnellan creates a world full of power, movement, music and mystery. There are moments of intense, moving simplicity contrasting with scenes of broad physical comedy. They come together into a very satisfying whole. For me, I still find the play difficult to love – I cannot really engage with most of the characters. However with such assured direction, the experience is one that comes close to converting me to the piece.
Igor Yasulovich gives an impressive portrayal of Prospero – bringing out the many facets of this complex character. Andrey Kuzichev is a brilliant foil with an elegant, measured and athletic portrayal of Ariel. The rest of the cast is well characterised and enter fully into the world of the enchanted island without a hint of self consciousness. One moment will stay with me for many years to come – the parting of Miranda and Caliban is painful and incredibly touching – shocking and yet completely in keeping with the spirit of the text.
In a play full of magic and surprises, there are a couple of scenes which come as a complete shock to the audience. I won't spoil them for you here – but rest assured, they are unique and will delight anyone who gets a chance to see the production.
The most surprising thing was that the Oxford Playhouse was not full. Cheek by Jowl appear in the UK all too rarely and their unique qualities should never be missed. Don't let the language barrier put you off – the theatrical experience is one that you will never forget.