Cheek By Jowl’s Russian sister company the Chekhov International Theatre Festival is once again taking to the UK stage, after hugely successful interpretations of Twelfth Night, Three Sisters and Boris Gudonov.
Under the skilful direction of Declan Donnellan, this production brings The Tempest to life with an intensely powerful and urgent energy – entirely in Russian, though with English surtitles.
The story is that of the usurped and exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero (Igor Yasulovich), who conjures a tempest at sea to take revenge on his political enemies, including his treacherous brother, and to restore his position and that of his daughter, Miranda (Anya Khalilulina).
Neatly drawing on Russian history, the play is set at a non-specific period, but demonstrably one where the struggle between communism and capitalism is at its height. Indeed there is a strong political thread running throughout which adds depth to the narrative.
For those of us who are not fluent in Russian, having to refer to the surtitles – which are inconveniently placed at either edge of the stage and therefore take your focus away from the actors – is irritating. Unlike the typical Italian opera where it takes a good ten minutes to sing one line which is repeated, Shakespeare is very heavily text-orientated, so the words simply fly by.
You could easily spend the evening staring at the text alone and missing the performance entirely. This would be a shame indeed, and I highly recommend that you break from the text, checking back once in a while to keep up, and immerse yourself in the most hypnotic and intense performances playing out on stage.
Donnellan uses some imaginative and effective devices to convey the story, including live music played by the ensemble, rich body movement and dance to replace the more customary use of props and scenery, and the extensive use of water throughout to symbolise everything from control and torture, to cleansing and redemption. Indeed the entire cast spend much of the play soaked through, which adds an edge of realism to the raging storm.
A true ensemble piece, it is difficult to single out any one performance, in an exemplary cast. Anya Khalilulina’s almost feral Miranda is stunning, and Yan Ilves’s Ferdinand more than a match for her. Alexander Feklistov (Caliban), Ilya Iliin (Trinculo) and Sergey Koleshnya (Stephano) are also great value and provide the physical comedy. But of course, the stage belongs to Prospero and Igor Yasulovich is both commanding and vulnerable by turns.
This is a production to be relished, and which makes me yearn to understand the language so that I can ignore the surtitles completely and not have to drag my eyes away from the totally engrossing performances.