Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
On paper it doesn’t sound like a very inviting night: one of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed ‘problem plays’, centring on legal entanglements, in Russian with blink-and-you-miss-em English subtitles. Yet somehow, this production of Measure for Measure, by the superlative company Cheek By Jowl, proves to be a belter.
The cast moves in a manner we’ve never quite seen before — like liquid helium or starlings on the turn — swooping from one side of the stage to the other, each time leaving behind the characters who’ll play the scene. It’s not only mesmerising, but neatly emphasises a world where the individual is at the mercy of the collective, where reputation depends on public status and where standing alone can be a strange and perilous exercise (much like Putin’s Russia perhaps).
The stripped-down plot sees just this kind of isolation befall Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), a solitary figure in a white dress and headscarf, who petitions the ranks of legal officials standing guard over both the legal system and her brother Claudio (Petr Rykov) — imprisoned for fornication. One face emerges from the bureaucracy but it isn’t overly human: the sharp-suited judge Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev). At first he is strict and frustratingly self-righteous, but finding himself drawn to Isabella, soon realises he can demand the sexual favours he craves in exchange for Claudio’s freedom.
Dilemmas open up in front of Isabella, the common thread between them being her failure to reconcile any sense of ethical justice with the law she encounters. Shakespeare enjoys torturing both his characters and the audience, with the staging here aptly evoking the interrogation rooms of the Cold War era, or the eternal sunless officialdoms found in Kafka’s novels.
Fresh from his more crowd-pleasing West End outing Shakespeare In Love, director Declan Donnellan conjures up a strange, brooding energy that is shot through with clear and believable emotion. His designer and Cheek By Jowl co-founder Nick Ormerod adds stark styling — everything red, black and white and the lighting always blazing harshly on those it illuminates.
Donnellan and Ormerod are working here with the company’s Moscow-based chapter and yes, every word is in Russian — and let it be said that keeping up with the words isn’t always easy. But there is a richness at every level — from the set design, to the tango-tinged choreography to the raw and real performances of the leads which makes the total brain engagement required (during a modest run time), well worth the effort.
Measure for Measure is on at Barbican until 25 April. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.