Donnellan & Ormerod’s Tempest is an assured, convincing piece of stagecraft. Using a simple three door stage and occasional projections, they recount Shakespeare’s last play with fluency. There’s many details to savour. The five male Ariels (only 5?) torment the shipwrecked visitors with watering cans. Rather than carrying logs, Ferdinand carries an Ariel. When Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio are accused by Ariel, the projection turns the stage into a Soviet show trial. And the marriage ceremony becomes a paean to kitsch Soviet art, as sickle-wielding farmers line-dance across the stage.
However, in a sense the final two images hint at this production’s Achilles Heel. Cheek by Jowl is working with their sister Russian theatre company. Hence the director and designer’s decision to include various signifiers in their staging which announce a Russian influence, as above. We also get Stefano and Trinculo as materialist oligarchs, hellbent on shopping to oblivion. But the overall impact of these allusions is bitty. It’s unclear what exactly Donnellan is seeking to say about Russian society, or why he is matching this “Russianness” onto The Tempest. (One wonders what Pelevin would have to say.) Is there a deeper theme? Or is it just skilful appropriation of local imagery which goes hand-in-glove with working with a Russian company?
This question felt all the more curious watching the show in Latin America. The role of The Tempest in Latin American culture is well-documented. You’ll meet plenty of people called Ariel here (including the man who watches the cars on our street for pennies). There’s no reason for Donnellan’s staging to refer to this, (it only happens to be on tour here), but what’s apparent watching the play is the extent to which the writer was aware of and infiltrating his text with the geo-political developments of his day. On one level The Tempest can be seen a magical fairytale. But on another it’s a play which is addressing concrete, tangible issues. Donnellan’s use of ‘Russian’ imagery suggests an awareness of the way that the play maps onto a more discursive reading, but ultimately, to this observer at least, that interpretation failed to come through with any clarity.
Instead, the primacy of the magical fairy tale wins through. With regard to this, the director’s handling is deft. The advantages of having worked with Shakespeare’s texts all your working life, and the confidence this gives, is evident. Donnellan teases his audience like a sixth spritely Ariel, interrupting the action, setting up the denoument, in control at every moment. It makes for an enjoyable evening and a notable demonstration of the theatrical benefits of a director and their designer (Nick Ormerod) working as a unit, as they have done for thirty years.
This is the third Cheek by Jowl Shakespeare I’ve seen (also one Webster). The first, Othello, was I believe, their first ever production, which toured to my school and I watched in the “drama barn” as a teenager. Ten years later, mas o menos, I saw Measure for Measure in the Sala Anglo, and went out for drinks with the cast in the Lobizon afterwards. It’s also worth noting that that Cheek By Jowl have had a unlikely but profound impact on my life, not for artistic reasons, but because a friend of mine once worked for them in their Kennington office. Where, one day, a fax arrived asking if the company knew of any young directors who might be interested in coming to work for a year in a place called Montevideo.