Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre and London’s Cheek by Jowl join forces in staging one of Shakespeare’s knottiest works for BAM’s Next Wave Festival, the “problem play” Measure for Measure, and they manage to make the play fresh, clear, and powerful without surrendering its haunting strangeness. Under the direction of Cheek by Jowl’s joint artistic directors, Declan Donnellan (director) and Nick Ormerod (design), a terrific ensemble cast led by Anna Vardevanian as the novitiate Isabella, Alexander Arsentyev as the “fantastical duke of dark corners,” and Andrei Kuzichev as the “precise” and hypocritical Angelo, navigate the sometimes funny, anguished, twisted, and simply bizarre play text with self-assured, passionate coherence, creating resonances with the contemporary #MeToo movement while at the same time exploring the play’s moral quandaries in a way that seems timeless.
It must be said for an English-language audience that if one lacks familiarity with Shakespeare’s play the evening could be somewhat difficult: the English supertitles are not well placed at the BAM Harvey Theater, and the language comes fast (the pacing is one of the great strengths of the production), so there is barely time to read.
Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna, where the Duke has decided to take a leave of absence and put the strict, puritanical Lord Angelo in charge in his stead. While the Duke has been lax in enforcing Vienna’s laws governing sexual morality, Angelo is the opposite, sentencing a young man named Claudio to death for the crime of impregnating his fiancée. Claudio’s sister Isabella, who resides at a convent and is about to take her vows, pleads with Angelo to spare her brother. Angelo agrees to free Claudio if Isabella will yield her virginity up to him. The Duke, disguised as a friar, overhears Isabella relating this to her brother (who urges her to comply). Scheming ensues, including a “bed trick,” and ultimately Angelo’s misdeeds are outed. The Duke “returns,” orchestrates several reveals, and then asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage. Shakespeare gives Isabella no response to the proposal.
Most of the actors remain on stage throughout the production, arranged in a group and moving in unison, serving as a kind of mute chorus, sometimes mimicking the gestures of the Duke or Isabella. This is wonderfully choreographed by Irina Kashuba and gives the production a balletic beauty, enhanced by Pavel Akimkin’s music, while also facilitating the fast-paced staging—the text is intelligently streamlined, particularly the plotting with Marianna and the bed-trick itself, all of which seems to be accomplished in a minute.
Kuzichev’s Angelo doesn’t merely proposition Isabella, but also attempts to rape her. When Isabella, played with intelligent toughness by Vardevanian, threatens to reveal to the world Angelo’s true self, he asks her who will believe her, and then offers a prolonged gesture toward the audience. The implication is painfully clear. While Isabella is sometimes criticized for her own moral stringency, the particular violence and grotesqueness of her scenes with Angelo here make her moral certainty understandable.
When the Duke proposes to Isabella, she appears not only mortified but angry. Her textual silence leaves this moment open for wide interpretation. Here Isabella seems to be thinking: first Angelo, then her brother, and now the Duke—what will it take for her to be liberated from men attempting to negotiate her body? The Duke’s reemergence and the final sequence is a bit too obvious and heavy-handed in its satire of political spectacle. But this doesn’t seriously detract from a production that is invigorating in its lucidity and grace, and heartrending in its relevance.