The more seriously you take ‘Measure for Measure’ the more ridiculous it becomes. Credit therefore must go to Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan for ensuring that his fascinating and frequently gripping Russian production of Shakespeare’s tale of sexual prohibition remains undaunted by this law of diminishing returns.
It’s the ‘problem play’ with the faintly ludicrous premise of a young man condemned to death for getting his fiancée pregnant. Never mind that the whole thing ends in farce, Donnellan’s production shows the play to be a kind of voyeuristic ceremony underpinned by sexual fetishism.
Nick Ormerod’s design positions five large red cubes on the Barbican’s expansive stage subtly evoking the yawning space of Moscow’s Red Square. The obvious satirical target is Vladimir Putin’s brand of neo-Tsarism, with besuited political apparatchiks supported by twitchy para-militaries administering rough justice and cavity searches. The cast of 13 scurry about the stage like a herd and it’s a tribute to the fleet-footed direction that the production never flags, despite being performed in Russian – naturally enough, fine surtitles by one William Shakespeare do help.
One of the nicest moments comes when Andrei Kuzichev’s deputy Duke, Angelo, hungrily sniffs the seat of the chair used by the nun Isabella after she comes to beg him for her brother’s life, exposing himself as a pervy hypocrite. And as Isabella, Anna Khalilulina packs volatile passion with her high-minded puritanism. This is nicely contrasted by Alexander Feklistov whose mischievous Lucio is a middle aged sybarite wearing Stringfellow-style satin.
It all ends slightly chaotically with Alexander Arsentyev’s Duke desperately trying to shore up the crisis he has artificially precipitated by going undercover as a monk. But if the farce of the final scene belies the seriousness of what goes before, Donnellan’s production should also be remembered for the intensity of its acting and its satirical ambition.