Cheek by Jowl and Russia’s Pushkin Theatre untangle the moral knot of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with electrifying results. Stripping the play back to less than two hours and performing on a stage bare save some large red boxes and overhead lights the sharp production, directed by Declan Donnellan, condenses the essence of the play into something powerful, restrained and incredibly revealing.
The Duke of Vienna, a lax law enforcer, slips into a Friar’s robe and hands the reins over to Lord Angelo before leaving his court to watch his city from a distance. Angelo’s regime soon cracks down on ‘fornication’ with zeal. Among the first to be arrested are Claudio and his pregnant girlfriend Juliet, who join the growing ranks of the city’s prison. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a beautiful young girl about to become a nun, goes to her new leader to beg pardon with increasingly passionate pleas and disastrous consequences. Angelo, already dizzy with power, agrees to waive the death sentence if the pious virgin will have sex with him. Swept up in a whirlwind of corruption Vienna becomes a barbaric totalitarian state: the suspicious, politically charged and violent Jacobean era translates to Putin’s Russia with frightening ease.
The entire cast is on stage most of the time, becoming, like the audience, silent witnesses to the chilling scenes, state-sanctioned horrors and miscarriages of justice. They move together like they’re slow dancing but when they cling to one another it’s out of fear not feeling. Outsiders are plucked from the edges of the group and tortured for their crimes or, as is the fate of Isabella, violated for their innocence. There are stunning performances from the whole ensemble but particularly Petr Rykov as desperate Claudio and Alexander Arsentyev as the Duke. Anna Khalilulina’s girlish Isabella, utterly perplexed by the society around her throughout, is a triumph. She is harrowing as a frail and hopeless wide-eyed victim, admirable during her brave stand against Angelo’s corrupt government and haunting in the play’s famously ambiguous final moments.
Measure for Measure is a complex play and the Russian language adds a further layer of difficulty. But Cheek by Jowl’s production is deeply affecting – not least when you take your eyes off of the subtitles and just watch the incredible acting. The first performance of the play was at Court before King James. Putin should be made to watch this measured Measure for Measure: it just might teach him some humanity.