Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre, Moscow – Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure in Russian, Cheek by Jowl + Pushkin Theatre, Moscow, directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, January 27-31, 2016. An event of Shakespeare 400 Chicago, 1616-2016, celebrating the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

This is a stunning production, certainly the best Measure for Measure I’ve ever seen. It is highly experimental in design in a way that remains brilliantly faithful to Shakespeare’s text and theatrical genius.

The staging focuses on several large box-shaped structures, the modern equivalent, perhaps, of the periaktoi of ancient Greek theater: that is, devices that can be thrust forward onstage and rotated to reveal changes in scenic intent. At the beginning they are arranged backstage in a row, separated from one another by spacious gaps so that the entire acting company (thirteen in all) can process between them and out onto the stage. The acting company swirls about, disappears, and re-emerges, serving as audience for one scene and then another. Key actors drop out of this swirl to become the figures of a given scene. At key points, three of the large boxes turn and open to reveal characters, one at a time, about whom we have been anxiously waiting to learn their fates. The staging concept is thus one of discovery, and as such is a terrific rendition of the way Shakespeare has structured his play.

The actors are all members of the Pushkin Theatre in Moscow, speaking in Russian. Rapidly moving supertitles provide the theater audience with Shakespeare’s text. Unlike the script of Grigori Kozintsev’s wonderful film versions of Hamlet and King Lear, in which Boris Pasternak’s Russian translation is re-translated into English with occasionally wide departures from what Shakespeare wrote, this production mostly gives us the original. The text is cut, to be sure, very adroitly so, providing us a brisk and taut two hours, wisely without intermission. Costumes are simple, modern, un­derstated. Few props are needed, as was true of Shakespeare’s Globe stage.

Sexuality is, for much of this production, an insistently dismal affair. When Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) reveals to Isabella (Anna Khalilulina) his intent to possess her sexually as the price of sparing her brother’s life, he underscores the point by lifting her white sisterhood gown, spreading her legs as he forces her down on to a table, and kneeling before her as he insults her virginal body. The motif recurs when Claudio (Petr Rykov), told by Isabella that she can save his life by giving herself to Angelo, panics at the thought of dying and begs that she do what Angelo has asked by making his own sexual attempt on her. This ugliness of male importunity is well suited to the production’s pointed depiction of prison life; no play of Shakespeare spends so much time inside the prison’s walls. The dark prison humor is splendidly augmented by Lucio (Alexander Feklistov) and his partners in the play’s wry scenes of humor.

Incarceration and spying are thematic elements that unite the show into a devastating critique of human carnality. The Duke of this production (Alexander Arsentyev) is brilliantly in control, but from behind the scenes. Whatever his reasons for leaving his city under the too-easily-corrupted authority of Angelo, the Duke is aware of what is going on. The final scene shows him at his most enigmatic and forceful. The play is seen as intensely political, and in a way that silently comments on a nation like modern-day Russia. The Duke knows how to arouse the adulation of his subjects. As he gestures with his arms, their roar of approval, heard over the sound system, swells and subsides in orchestrated waves of popular hysteria. Power of this sort is intensely dangerous. Angelo has attempted to abuse such power in the most craven manner possible; the Duke, conversely, is a charismatic figure who, almost miraculously, knows how to use power in the service of forgiveness and reform.

How would this magnificent production, I wondered, handle the business in the final scene of whether Isabella accepts or rejects the Duke’s proposal of marriage? For some decades now, feminist insights into Shakespearean staging have insisted that Isabella, who is given no lines of reply, can choose to walk away from such a proposal. Her refusal of the Duke’s offer has nearly reached the status of de rigueur. How remarkable, then, that this Isabella, though surprised at first and indeed decidedly skeptical at an idea that the audience too finds unexpected and amusing, agrees at last to dance with the Duke in a gesture of acceptance. The final stage image is of three dancing couples: Claudio with his fiancée Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva) and their newborn child, a disconsolate Angelo with his Mariana (Elmira Mirel), and, center stage, the Duke and Isabella. She has managed to find a comic resolution to this play’s insistently dark view of human depravity. Love and marriage offer themselves as a choice one must perilously make if one is to avoid existential despair.

David Bevington

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and compara­tive literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.