UK company Cheek by Jowl team up with Pushkin Theatre to transpose Shakespeare's tale of sex, shame and the law to contemporary Russia
For the past few hundred years (the 19th century was a big one for the guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon), theatre-makers the world over have – for better or worse – tried to uncover the truth of what it is to be a person in the world by staging Shakespeare’s plays. His poetry and broad appeal sit at the apex of western theatre even as our societies evolve and our playwrights continue to create new plays: an immovable object, an authoritative voice.
And so, Britain's Cheek by Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre have turned to the Bard to explore political corruption, via Measure for Measure – one of those Shakespearean 'problem plays' that veer unevenly between genres (in this case, drama and dark comedy) – but are overstuffed with ideas.
The Duke (played here by Alexander Arsentyev), concerned that Vienna is corrupt, turns power over to his deputy Angelo (Andrew Feklistov) and ‘disappears’. As the Duke dons a friar’s robes so he can stick around and observe the fallout, Angelo is instantly carried away by puritanical power. His first moves are to police sex: he shuts down the brothels and begins arresting citizens for lewd behaviour.
Angelo’s too-calm ruthlessness is unsettling, but never more so than when Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), a novice nun, must plead for the life of her brother Claudio (Kiryl Dytsevich), who has been sentenced to death for conceiving a child with his not-yet-wedded partner, Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva).
Even with director Declan Donnellan's high-impact, baldly contemporary theatrics the play is still full of dated ideas about women's bodies, sexual autonomy and shame. Isabella isn't married off to the Duke at the end (often, her silence upon his proposal of marriage in the text is interpreted by directors and academics as acquiescence) but she is, earlier, sexually assaulted by Angelo in an overt example of brutality that is added into the play purely for spectacle and shock. The spurned Mariana (Elmira Mirel), who was once affianced to Angelo, is treated more cavalierly by comparison, which reads like an implicit moral judgment by the theatre-makers: the virginal novitiate is tragic and dignified, while the sexually active woman is more of a punchline. This compounds the problem inherent in the text: with its punitive views on women's sexual life and morals without nuance, Measure for Measure seems like it’s missing the essential complexities of modern life and a bad fit for contemporary programming.
But it's easy to understand why Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch would bring this show to Australia for his first festival season – it's a deconstruction and reinvention of a classical work that is not entirely dissimilar to the adaptive spirit in Australian theatre practice, with elements of physical theatre, dance, and black comedy that are both challenging and familiar. There's an elegance to this pared down work: its 110-minute running time moves quickly even without an interval, and the beginning of the piece, which sets up the political dynamics of the play and the world in which it takes place through silence and movement, is clever and striking.
Donnellan's vision for the work is assured and indulgent, and his cast is exceptional, delivering fierce but decadent performances across the board. The set (by Nick Ormerod), lights (Sergei Skornetskly), and music (Pavel Akimkin) work with Irina Kashuba's choreography as part of a perfect, vaguely macabre machine; each element supports and lifts the other.
These talents seem a little bit wasted on a work that only has so much left to say; Donnellan's insistence that Shakespeare is the key to our lost empathy is compelling, but Measure for Measure is still an uneven, not-quite-great-play. Without a strong textual foundation, the production can’t really take off. It’s high-calibre and arresting, but ultimately just another take on a very old play.