The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0996 Sunday, 12 November 2006
From: Al Magary <
Date: Thursday, 09 Nov 2006 22:31:17 -0800
Subject: How *does* Shakespeare play in another language? A Russian
'Twelfth Night' in NY
Shakespeare in That Universal Language: Theater
By BEN BRANTLEY
New York Times, November 9, 2006
Boundaries melt like ice cubes in August in the Chekhov International
Theater Festival's blissful production of "Twelfth Night," which runs
through Sunday at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Lines traditionally relied upon to separate sexes, scenes, senses and,
for that matter, languages dissolve into a mist of theatrical
enchantment in this all-male Russian-speaking interpretation of
Shakespeare's tale of identities under siege in the land of Illyria.
There may be moments when, like the play's love-bewitched characters,
you'll feel like slapping your brow to dislodge the clouds of
disorientation crowding your head. While the drag accoutrements are
minimal, there are times when you suddenly remember, with a breathless
"oh," that the lithe young woman dressed as a boy is first of all, yes,
And how can it be that you find yourself thinking you have rarely heard
the sense of Shakespeare rendered with such enlightening exactness and
musicality, when the words you're listening to are not remotely like
English, Elizabethan or otherwise?
A bit of advice, per Shakespeare: stop trying to analyze, and surrender
to the stream of sensations. As one character in the play wisely
counsels, "If it be thus to dream, then let me sleep." When your guides
are as magically accomplished as Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the
British artists who created Cheek by Jowl and are this show's director
and designer, you can truly go with the flow with no fear of drowning.
To many theatergoers the idea of hearing Shakespeare in anything other
than its original tongue is akin to watching ballet performed by
inanimate statues. The play may be the thing, but in Shakespeare, the
words - with all their distinctively English textures and sounds - make
the play. Don't they?
The glorious surprise of this "Twelfth Night" - which made its debut in
Moscow, has since toured Europe (it was the hot ticket in London when I
was there this summer) and moves on from New York for an American tour
that includes stops in Arizona, Chicago and California - is in how it
finds an alchemical substance in Shakespeare that transcends the verbal.
At first I was distracted by the telegraphic nature of the supertitles.
But Mr. Donnellan and Mr. Ormerod, who have been working with Russian
theater companies since 1997, make the heretical case that the essence
of Shakespeare isn't exclusively linguistic. The words, it seems, are
but steppingstones to a universal pattern of images and insights about
human behavior and the perplexing world that thwarts and shapes it.
Shakespeare's first language, it would seem, is not English, after all;
Anyone who saw the Cheek by Jowl productions of "As You Like It" or
Webster's "Duchess of Malfi" at the Brooklyn Academy in the 1990s knows
how disarmingly fluent Mr. Donnellan and Mr. Ormerod are in the language
of theater, and how seductively they can reintroduce you to its most
This "Twelfth Night" (like the Cheek by Jowl "As You Like It") begins
with its raw clay yet to be molded. The entire company assembles on a
blank white stage, men dressed identically in black pants and white
shirts. A few words are spoken among them, words technically belonging
to the play's heroine, Viola, and plucked (with slight distortion) from
the center of the text: "I am all the daughters of my fathers,/And all
the brothers. Yet I know not."
This resonant declaration of what a puzzle a person is assumes immediate
physical life when one young man is descended upon by the other actors
and wrapped in a black skirt. This actor, Andrey Kuzichev, looks a bit
baffled at first. But when next we see him, in a golden sheath, he is
Viola, the shipwrecked daughter of a noble house, and we are not about
to question Mr. Kuzichev's right to be her. This simple theatrical
metamorphosis becomes a template for all that follows, as the play
unfolds in a succession of movements from resistance - to love, to
compassion, to understanding - toward surrender.
The story flows with a liquidness I've rarely seen matched in
productions of Shakespeare, with the action between scenes overlapping
onstage. If this sounds confusing, it isn't, thanks in part to Mr.
Ormerod's exquisite use of space- and mood-defining lighting. But
clarity also comes from the explicit physical characterizations of each
performer, from the straight-backed class-conscious stances of the noble
Olivia (Alexey Dadonov) and her suitor, the Count Orsino (Vladimir
Vdovichenkov), to the disjointed Cubist angularity of the revelers Sir
Toby Belch (Alexander Feklistov) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dmitry Dyuzhev).
Mr. Kuzichev's fine-tuned interpretation of a woman trying to assume a
man's mien is on a level of its own.
That poses and postures can be feigned and broken is of course one of
the lessons of "Twelfth Night." The theme is given its most literal life
in the transformation of Olivia's priggish steward Malvolio (Dmitry
Shcherbina) into a slavering, clothes-discarding animal, when his
overweening ambition gets the best of him.
But this production also makes more pervasive, and oddly haunting,
merriment of the notion of identity as a game of hide-and-seek. When
Viola, disguised as a page boy, first visits Olivia, the members of the
countess's court don black veils and wander like ghosts among columns of
fabric. And it occurs to you, for one dizzy second, that any of them
could be Olivia.
The same sense of flux is given ecstatically funny form in the duel
between the disguised Viola and the craven Sir Andrew. And the climactic
moment in which the knot of confusions and deceptions is finally untied
is staged as a circling, wondering carousel of movement.
Every so often, though, the action freezes to allow Viola and, later,
her twin, Sebastian (Sergey Mukhin), to step forward in moments of
revelation, to observe (to the sound of tolling bells) that there indeed
may be order in this chaos.
Music plays the essential role it must, with songs (by Vladimir Pankov
and Alexander Gusev) that shift from nightclub brassiness to
gut-plumbing sadness. (Watch the seamless changes of mood in the
drinking scene enacted by Toby, Andrew and the wily lady-in-waiting
Maria, played by Ilia Ilyin.)
Many of the numbers are performed by Feste the clown (Igor Yasulovich),
who has some of the epicene drollness (though little of the creepiness)
of the M.C. from "Cabaret." In his powder-white makeup and jester's
motley, Feste seems to exist somewhere between the sexes and classes, an
embattled point of equilibrium in a world of extremes.
But you are never allowed to forget entirely the silence behind the
revelry, nor the darkness that always waits to succeed the sun. Both
acts end with a simple coup de th