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Review: Measure for Measure (Cheek by Jowl, Pushkin Theatre Moscow, Sydney Festival)

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Review: Measure for Measure (Cheek by Jowl, Pushkin Theatre Moscow, Sydney Festival)

by Jo Litson on January 9, 2017 (January 9, 2017) filed under Theatre | Comment Now
★★★½☆ A boldly staged Russian language production brings impressive clarity to a famously problematic play.

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
January  7, 2017

At the start of Declan Donnellan’s production of Measure for Measure, the 13-strong Russian cast appears on stage in a group. Moving together in formation around five large red containers as if making their way through the streets of Vienna, the actor playing the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) is eventually isolated from the pack. From his awkward arm movements and hesitant body language, it’s clear that he has trouble communicating with his people and is uncomfortable wielding authority.

Anna Khalilulina as Isabella is restrained from attacking Andrei Kuzichev's Angelo. Photo by Prudence Upton

Moving swiftly into the play itself, the Duke announces his departure, appointing the strait-laced, hard-line Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) as his deputy while he is away. Hoping that Angelo will clean up the vice and debauchery now rife in the city, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and then returns to watch what unfolds. Throughout the production, the assembled pack is ever present, observing proceedings, moving around the stage, disgorging characters for scenes and then gathering them back into the pack. It’s an effective device, which keeps the fast-paced production moving quickly, while suggesting the tension between the individual and the society they live in.

Ostensibly a comedy, Measure for Measure is a dark, morally complex work regarded as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” in which novice nun Isabella (Anna Khalilulina) refuses to yield her virginity to Angelo in return for the life of her brother Claudio (Kiryl Dytsevich), who has been condemned to death for getting his fiancée Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva) pregnant. Donnellan – a British director who works regularly in Russia – created this production for his renowned company Cheek by Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre in 2013. Many of the actors have worked with him for 17 years now, and there is a palpable sense of ensemble. After rave reviews in Moscow, the production has had acclaimed seasons in the UK, Europe and the US.

Alexander Arsentyev as the Duke. Photo by Prudence Upton

A political piece exploring power and its abuse, corruption, hypocrisy and conflicted sexuality, Donnellan has radically pared back the script so that the play runs for 110 minutes without interval. The modern-dress production is staged on a stark set designed by Nick Ormerod (Donnellan’s partner and the co-founder of Cheek by Jowl) in a cold, clinical world where political leaders in suits are flanked by armed guards. Performed in Russian, the English surtitles fly past at great speed, which takes some getting used to, but if you know the play it’s not really necessary to look up too much to be well aware of what is happening.

Looking like a slightly nerdy bureaucrat, with an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin at times, Kuzichev’s Angelo is coldly sure of himself from the start. Gripped by a sudden, overwhelming attraction to Isabella, he is like a ravening wolf, running his hands up her legs while shushing her as one would a child, then greedily sniffing the chair on which she has been sitting after she has gone: shockingly powerful images.

As Isabella, Khalilulina is no pious, shrinking violet but a strong, impassioned woman, fierce in her beliefs, who – in another shocking image – finds herself sexually threatened by her brother in his desperation for her to save him. In the problematic ending, when the Duke announces that he wants to marry Isabella himself – which prompted some laughter on opening night – Shakespeare leaves things ambiguous, giving Isabella nothing to say. Often it is played as if she happily acquiesces. Here, Khalilulina makes it clear that the idea is as appealing to her as succumbing to Angelo. There are strong performances from all the cast, with Alexander Feklistov, a wonderfully comical, sleazy Lucio, who may lie through his teeth but also speaks many a true word.

Kiryl Dytsevich as Claudio and Anna Khalilulina as Isabella. Photo by Prudence Upton

The Duke, meanwhile, may have discovered a bit more about his people but has plenty more to learn. Towards the end of the play, a red carpet is rolled out to welcome him back and, in an echo of the choreography at the opening, Donnellan shows that the Duke may be better at manipulating the crowd but still doesn’t really know how to relate to the people.

Donnellan’s production offers no false hope as the Duke ties things up at the play’s resolution – though it is not as chilling an ending as in some darker takes on the play. It ends with the three couples dancing a waltz – Claudio and Juliet (with their baby), Angelo with Mariana (Elmira Mirel as the woman Angelo wronged who the Duke orders him to marry), and the Duke and Isabella. As the jaunty music fills the theatre, and the couples whirl, it feels like a very ironic happy ending for all but the genuinely in-love Claudio and Juliet.

The great virtue of the production is the clarity of the story-telling, which leaves you impressed rather than shattered.

Measure for Measure plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until January 11