Here's a truth before we begin. If this were a review of a professional theatre reviewer I'd probably have a hinterland to draw on. I'd have seen other performances of Measure For Measure. I'd be familiar with the well-known productions. I'd have actually read the play so I could talk convincingly about what scenes were cut.
Alas I have never studied the play. I haven't seen any other production, whether that be stage or screen, so I can only reflect upon what I saw tonight. I am aware, mainly from reading Clive James, that 'Measure For Measure' is a 'problem play'. The problem seems to be one particular scene revolving around swapping in one character for another in a way that fools a third character. We'll come on to that later. What I will say is that it didn't seem like a problem play watching this production.
I have no in-depth understanding of Russian theatrical craft, although I have actually read 'Being An Actor' by Stanislavski.
I haven't seen another Cheek by Jowl production. I have no idea what their production philosophy is, although I could find out if I were to read Declan Donnellan's* book 'The Actor and The Target'. I might do that one day.
I write all that because I want you all to be aware that this review is almost entirely without context and that you can choose to judge it accordingly.
The first thing I should note is that watching Shakespeare in Russian with surtitles takes a bit of getting used to. You have to fight the desire to read the words and ignore the performances. It would be an interesting exercise, having seen it once, to watch it again without looking at the surtitles to see how much the performance itself conveys meaning.
The story goes something like this: Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) has decided to take a few days off ruling and hands over the reigns of power to Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev). However the Duke is bluffing and decides to hang about, disguised as a Friar to see how things pan out. Angelo is a harder man than the Duke intent on getting the City back on the straight and narrow.
Caught up in this 'back to basics' programme is Claudio (Petr Rykov) who has got his lover, Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva) pregnant. Out of wedlock. The punishment for this is death. Claudio's friend, Lucio (Alexander Feklistov) rushes off to Claudio's sister, Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), who is about to become a nun.
Isabella isn't keen but is persuaded. She meets up with Angelo and something about his bureaucratic coldness rouses her to a mighty defence of her brother. Initially Angelo refuses but haven fallen for Isabella basically offers her a deal: her virginity for her brother's life. This is all brilliantly acted. Anna Khalilulina is a passionate, powerful Isabella and Andrei Kuzichev's cooler, colder Angelo is a perfect balance.
Isabella's convinced Claudio would rather die than let his sister be dishonoured but under-estimates the effect the fear of death has on a man's courage. The Isabella - Claudio scene moves from the straightforward to the uncomfortable as it goes along. Again Khalilulina is wonderful and Rykov's Claudio is both real and pathetic.
All this is witnessed by the Duke (disguised as Friar) and he comes up with a plan to get around this involving a woman Angelo dumped, Mariana (Elmira Mirel). The plan, revolving around Isabella and Mariana swapping places passes off well. But Angelo - boo, hiss - orders Claudio's execution nonetheless.
The Duke scandalised by Angelo's double-dealing gets involved in a complicated plan to stitch Angelo up, which involves blagging the Provest (Alexander Matrosov) into sending Angelo a head that isn't Claudio's but they're pretending is Claudio. It's all very Blackadder "Head". Or rather Blackadder's "Head" is all very "Measure For Measure".
Angelo thinks he's got away with it as the Duke returns but the best laid plans etc. And everyone lives happily ever after. Or not. I'm not really sure the ending is one of Shakespeare's best. The Duke seems a bit feckless, although Arsentyev is very funny as he tries to persuade Isabella to marry him. Angelo is sent off to marry Mariana.
Everyone dances. The end.
Because this is a Russian production it is very easy to see this as a tale of modern Russia but it doesn't quite stack up. Is Putin the Duke or Angelo. Or both? If the Duke were Lenin the sad truth is that he didn't come back and take control off of Stalin. Perhaps though the moral is that the Duke might have issues as a ruler but it could always be worse. Be careful what you wish for as you might swap a Duke for an Angelo.
I actually saw in Angelo some of the darker parts of Britain's recent history. The figure of authority that takes his power and uses it to sexually exploit another person. And then to basically say to Isabella, the victim, "Who is going to believe you? I'm seen as a man of power and honour so who is going to think your story is true?" Angelo only gets caught out because a more powerful man is there to stop him. A powerful man who basically steps in to take Isabella away from her sexless fate as a Nun.
It's interesting designed and directed with a very clever decision made to use the cast like a flock of birds swirling together about the bare stage with a character popping out from within in order to make their speeches before being swallowed up by the flock again. It works particularly well at the beginning, when the flock as a whole peers suspiciously upon the audience. It's almost a Greek chorus but silent. Based on movement. Not words.
I've gone on long enough. Almost. This is really worth seeing. It's well-acted, particularly Khalilulina's Isabella who is the emotional core of the play, even if her decision to agree to the Duke's marriage proposal doesn't quite ring true.
If you don't get a chance to see it in the flesh then the Telegraph are live streaming it on 22nd April so you can watch it then if you're in the mood. The link is here I think.
I'd like to see another production of 'Measure For Measure' though as I'm not sure what I think of the play itself.
Exits to go off and read play.
*If Declan Donnellan is reading this (unlikely I know) I'd love to have a chat about the whole thing and be told how wrong my thoughts on it are. :-)