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The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Cheek by Jowl
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, and touring
(2011)

The Tempest production photo

Water is everywhere in Cheek by Jowl's typically excellent new production of The Tempest, serving both as a blessing to the visitors to the island and as a brickbat. Members of the shipwrecked party are repeatedly soaked by Ariel, adding to their woes, while it serves for Ferdinand, put to cruel labours by Prospero, as a benison, after he is finally allowed to rest, undress and wash.

Declan Donnellan directs an all-Russian ensemble, last seen on these shores in a brilliant production of Twelfth Night. The Tempest doesn't quite scale those heights but it is beautifully lucid, very well-acted and full of epiphanies.

Thus, Miranda is an 'enfant sauvage', pace Truffaut's film, who, like Caliban, lives in fear of her father and his sudden rages. At the last she is dragged off, leaving Caliban alone again on his island, a fate bewailed by both. One is struck time and again by how fresh familiar scenes become and how deeply the company seem to have thought about characters, so nuanced are they.

The opening is wonderful in its simplicity and effectiveness. The lights dim, Prospero pads on and sits down on a stool and closes his eyes. We hear the sound of the wind rising. The several doors behind him begin to band open and close, before revealing the mariners pulling for their lives on ropes as the tempest, which Prospero has summoned before our eyes, lashes their ship.

And when Prospero stoops to put a necklace around his daughter's neck, Miranda recoils and wriggles as though it was the rope circling Caliban's neck, a rope with which he is led on to the stage. Here, Caliban apparently shows little either in appearance or behaviour to merit the description of him by Prospero as "a thing of darkness". He seems, rather, a creature "more sinned against than sinning", with the darkness existing in Prospero's mind only.

And Miranda's lines, "O brave new world that hath such creatures in it", is delivered by her to her father as an angry reproof of his misanthropy.

The tired comic business involving Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban, surely some of Shakespeare's least rewarding, is rendered at least bearable, while the pageant is mercifully restrained consisting of dances by Russian peasants and later suited apparatchiks atop what could easily be Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square. Then Prospero suddenly and irritably ends proceedings, what seems to be a stage manager appears, and the house lights are thrown on.

The nod to Russian history continues when the three plotters finally enter Prospero's cave, here a department store. All three excitedly help themselves to sunglasses, designer clothes and, most desirable of all, to a mobile phone.

And how refreshing to watch a production of The Tempest which does not yet again treat it as a study of colonialism, as the most recent production hosted by the RSC did (again). Yes, it is a valid approach but it is not the only game in town.

"The Tempest" tours to the Barbican from 7th to 16th April, where it was reviewed by Philip Fisher

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Reviewer: Pete Wood