Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

Eleanor McLoughlin, Chris Gordon. Copyright Johan Persson.jpg

In Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Declan Donnellan, the operation of time is given thematic pride of place. In fact, Time herself (Grace Andrews) frames the action of the story. From the opening of the house and the commencement of the play, to the transition to the pastoral world of Bohemia, to the play’s closing moments in Paulina’s “gallery,” Time guides this Tale’s major turnings. The production’s choice to highlight Time’s involvement in human events beyond what is explicitly provided in Shakespeare’s text makes perfect sense when The Winter’s Tale is considered in its generic context, as part of the body of Shakespeare’s late romances, or tragicomedies. Many of the genre’s defining features—namely the flouting of the classical unities—may be seen as directly related to its fascination with time and to its overlapping interests in movement, transformation, and the sudden, unexpected revelations brought about by time’s passage. Indeed, the sheer pleasure of a romance like The Winter’s Tale is due, in large part, to the interconnected work of these very elements, in their ability to generate the wonder excited by what Sir William Davenant referred to as “the plot’s swift change and counterturn.”

While some elements of Donnellan’s production (such as the aforementioned pervasive presence of Time, the modality of the sparse
set pieces, and the fluid use of projections) cleverly uphold romance’s interest in change of all sorts, the work of these same elements is often undercut in a production that also features choices far more static.
While Mamillius (Tom Cawte) indeed declares that “a sad tale’s best for winter,” the set design by Nick Ormerod is unchangingly cold (2.1.25). The house opens to a dark, nearly bare stage, an almost void-like space that resists any ascription of time or place. The lights (designed by Judith Greenwood) then come up at the commencement of Act I where we are introduced to Leontes’ (Orlando James) Sicilian court, but the light is harsh, largely cool, and somehow just as alienating as the darkness. The members of the court, moreover, are attired by Ormerod in black, white, and shades of grey, and in styles as resistant to any particular periodization as the set. Such stark choices might have been more effective for the disturbed Sicilian kingdom if they had been met with a marked transition into the Bohemian pastoral world. Bohemia, though, is just as harsh as Sicilia. In this production, Bohemia is dark and rain-drenched from the requisite shipwreck that lands baby Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin) on the coast all the way through the sheep shearing festival sixteen years later. The drab (gray palette) costumes of the first half of the play are matched by the similarly drab (brown palette) overcoats, wellies, and stocking caps featured at the festival. As the cold downpour continues in the dark outside the festival space, the only real visual hint at the regeneration traditionally signaled by the move to the pastoral world is found in Perdita’s flowers (which now seem strangely incongruous).

But it is also the alterations to play text itself that deprive the last two Acts of much of their warmth and downplay their investment in the power of restorative change. One of the most obvious examples is the short, comedic altercation between Mopsa (Joy Richardson) and Dorcas (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) at the festival that, here, is exploded into an overly long, Jerry Springer-esque showdown complete with catfight between scantily-clad, sequined combatants and audience participation. While this is certainly a fresh, modernized rendition of this moment, the trashy daytime talk show interpretation undercuts the earnestness of the country festival that functions in the text as another one of the romance’s celebrations of renewal and which, ultimately, points us forward to the play’s maybe-miraculous revivification of the Sicilian queen (also Natalie Radmall-Quirke). Other examples include the brutal groping of Perdita by the disguised Polixenes (Edward Sayer), the downplaying of Leontes’ penitence prior to the courtiers’ trip into Paulina’s “gallery,” and the trimming of the play’s final social resolutions to exclude the pairing of the faithful servant Camillo (Abubakar Salim) with the widowed Paulina (also Joy Richardson). The final moments of the play feature little Mamillius’s ghost walking the stage, sensed by a freshly anguished Leontes.

At least for this viewer, the sum of these edgy choices lends the impression that perhaps nothing much has really changed in Sicilia (or anywhere or anytime else). Certainly, they only add to the residual ambiguity that Shakespeare himself invites us to grapple with at the story’s end: the drama is indebted to fairy tale and myth, but what should be a happy ending is tinged with sorrow. The young Mamillius remains dead. Leontes’ family is not quite whole. The fairy tale is ruined. But romance isn’t just a fairy tale—is also the literary heir to the Gospel narratives and to the late medieval miracle and mystery plays still familiar to Shakespeare and his original audiences. For these stories, as in The Winter’s Tale, time, mistakes, death and sorrow are painfully real. But they are not allowed to have the final word. It is the warm and hopeful counterturn, the growing through such pain, that this Winter’s Tale seems to lack.

Stephanie Kucsera  is a doctoral candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in early modern drama with a focus in inter-religious encounter and constructions of  English nationhood. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago, an inter-disciplinary MA from the University of Chicago, and her BA in theatre and English literature from the University of Indianapolis.

Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

07_Guy Hughes, Orlando James, Joseph Black, Chris Gordon. Photo Johan Persson_CROP.jpg

I saw the Cheek by Jowl production of The Winter’s Tale on December 20, the longest night of the year, and it haunted me well into the dark hours of the early morning. It’s a play I’ve seen often before, including memorable productions at Chicago Shakespeare in 2002-2003 and 1994-1995. But Declan Donnellan’s stunning, sometimes even shocking, direction made me see things in it I never saw before—which often happens in a really good production of a familiar Shakespeare play.[1] The central plot is simple enough:

Jealous King Leontes accuses his innocent (and pregnant) wife Hermione of cuckolding him with his childhood friend Polixenes; he has her imprisoned, where she bears the child and dies. Leontes sends the newborn girl off to be killed by exposure. When their young son Mamillius sickens and dies, grieving for his mother, Leontes realizes his error and is overcome by self-loathing.

But, in fact, the newborn girl does not die; she is found by a shepherd, who raises her as his own daughter. Fifteen years later she meets and falls in love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel. When the young couple appears in Leontes’ court, it transpires that Hermione, too, did not die after all, but merely went into hiding. She emerges now, and they all live happily ever after.

Ah, but do they really? The term “winter’s tale” signifies the coziness of sitting around a fire but also the coziness of a familiar and implausible fairytale. The Winter’s Tale makes fun of its own implausibility, as when the long lost daughter—whose lostness is so basic to her that she is named Perdita—has been found, and people in Leontes’ court keep saying things like, “This news, which is called true, is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (5.2.28-30). And when Hermione, long thought to be dead, is found to be alive, they say, “That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale: but it appears she lives” (5.3.115—227).

When Hermione asks her son Mamillius to tell them a story, he remarks, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.25), and this is, all told, a sad tale, despite the unbelievable happy end. An inspired touch in this production illumi­nated the sadness for me, a haunting moment at the end when, as all the couples are assembled (Hermione and Leontes, Perdita and Florizel, and others in subplots I haven’t space to tell you about), and they all hug together in one big collage of bodies, and freeze in a stop-frame, the happy ending seems glued in place. But then the dead boy, Mamillius (or rather, presumably, his ghost), wanders soundlessly on stage and walks to the petrified group of happy enders and sadly walks away, reminding us that even a happy ending has a tragic edge in a late Shakespearean romance—the dead child, who does not come back to life as Hermione and Perdita seem to do, not to mention the tragedy of the fifteen years of lonely misery for both Hermione and Leontes.

A more pervasive innovation in this production offers the answer to a question about this play that has haunted me for years: Why is Leontes so unreasonably jealous? Unlike Othello, Leontes has no Iago to blame; he does it all by himself. But under Declan Donnellan’s powerful direction, the actor Orlando James, a brilliant Leontes, is constantly in motion. His frenetic agitation reveals a man about to explode, a man overpowered by his own physicality. His boyish roughhousing with Polixenes, and with Mamillius, and eventually, most inappropriately, with his extremely pregnant wife finally explodes into mad rage, as he throws her down and kicks her pregnant belly, bringing on the premature birth of Perdita. His violence is also obscene. His overheated sexual imagination is brilliantly illuminated, in this production, during his anguished soliloquy about his sexual jealousy. As Hermione and Polixenes freeze like statues, Leontes moves them into the positions of a copulating couple, making his imagined fears come vividly alive for him, and for us. “Your actions are my dreams” (3.2.82), he says to Hermione.

Polixenes, too, is well played by Edward Sayer with that same excess of energy, both violent and sexual. These qualities come out when he attacks his son Florizel for falling in love with the low-born (as they think) shepherd girl Perdita. Shakespeare gives Polixenes sharp words—he threatens to have Perdita’s face scratched with briars to destroy her beauty, and to devise a “cruel death” for her if ever she might open ”these rural latches” to Florizel’s entrance. But Donnellan has Polixenes accompany this sadistic sentiment with an equally sadistic action, brutally groping her between her legs. At this moment I realized, for the first time, why Leontes and Polixenes were indeed such boyhood pals—they are two of a kind, which is why it is Polixenes who stirs Leontes’ jealousy. This double dose of pent-up violence and sexuality is what this play has in place of a Iago. The jealousy is all the more appalling because it comes from within Leontes, whom we come to view not as a particularly twisted individual but as a member of a male world that nourishes sexuality and violence in boys from their very childhood. And the pent-up negative energy of the two men is enhanced by the extraordinary choreography of this production where, unlike most stage presentations in which everyone stands still whenever the main characters are speaking, here everyone seems to be in perpetual motion, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, like matter itself, expressing in the ensemble the inner restlessness of the two central male characters. Moments like that change one’s understanding of a great play forever after.

[i] Woody Allen (in “The Kugelmass Episode,” in Side Effects [New York, 1975]) once satirized the way that we experience the same classic differently at different times, in a short story about a Jewish businessman from New York who got into Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and had an affair with Emma Bovary at the Plaza Hotel in New York, so that anyone who read the book at that time read about the businessman and the Plaza Hotel. A Stanford professor, encountering this new character and new episode, explained to his class, “Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.”

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She earned her BA at Radcliffe College, her PhD from Harvard University, and a DPhil from Oxford University. She is the author of over forty books, most recently The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was (2005), The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), On Hinduism (2013) and Hinduism in the Norton Anthology of World Religions (2015).

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

My esteemed colleagues David Bevington and Alfred Thomas praise Declan Donnellan’s Russian-language Measure for Measure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater almost as if it were two different plays, one “brilliantly faithful” to Shakespeare and the other speaking truth to power with “an important new non-Anglophone perspective.” How can they both be right (which I think they are)?

The simple fact is that Measure almost always feels like several plays woven together. Donnellan captures this halfway through, when the stage suddenly explodes. Claudio, naked to the waist, stands astride a stringed bass while the cast, hands linked, swirls around him to mad music. The Duke shouts out to the chaste Isabella and lascivious Marianna how they will trick his lieutenant Angelo out of rape and into marriage.


It is a stunning coup de theatre, utterly changing the pace and dynamic of the drama. Up until then, Vienna has been a quagmire of vice and hypocrisy, overrun with prostitutes, pimps, and fornicators. The Duke is indecisive, uncomfortable with power, and afraid of his own people. When he goes underground, leaving the “prenzie” Angelo to lead a crackdown in his absence, things get progressively worse. The Duke, disguised as a monk, seems overwhelmed by the social chaos from below and corruption of power from above. Then he hears the corrosive exchange between Claudio and his sister Isabella, in which Claudio begs his sister Isabella for his life after she refuses to submit to rape in order to save him. In a second, the Duke changes, the play changes, and everything in Vienna changes.

The manic dance around Claudio solves the three problems that haunt productions of Measure. What is it about—the general corruption of man, the abuse of power, the fear of death, or all of these? How are we to take this Duke, who seems derelict at the beginning and overly manipulative at the end? And what are we to make of an ending that forces the protagonists into marriages in order to put a “comic” cap on a savage satire? Modern productions have looked for a way to make sense of it. Should Marianna refuse to save Angelo, or Isabella refuse to marry the Duke at the end? Should she just kill herself? Or kill him?

What is the play about? All of the above. It careens through throat-choking moral issues without time for breath. Prostitution is no victimless crime here. Rape, murder, bribery are all in the air or before our eyes. As the Duke searches for a way to postpone Claudio’s execution—it’s really judicial murder—suddenly the Provost, who commands the prison, moves to the foreground. Until that moment, he has been just another Shakespearean extra known only by his title. But confronted with a clearly immoral directive, he must decide. Will he just follow orders? Step by step he rises to moral action, first protesting merely with words, then acquiescing to the Duke’s proposed subterfuge, and then finally devising the way to put a stop to Angelo’s crime.

The Duke himself puts off the monk’s habit in which he has disguised himself, and reemerges as a preening alpha-dog politician. With tightly controlled, Putinesque gestures (this is in Russian, after all), he manipulates his subjects in what feels more and more like a show trial, making each figure realize that his displeasure signals death. None can be sure who will be the victim, until the jaws of his malice close around Angelo.

So justice is dispensed, if justice it be, at the hands of an all-wise authoritarianism. As the couples pair off and begin their marriage dance, Donnellan stages his final coup de theatre. When Isabella tries to embrace her brother, Claudio turns from her in disgust, and takes in his arms his partner and their newborn child. Life and human warmth spurn cold moral rectitude. Gazing on their happiness, Isabella relents, takes the hand of the Duke, and submits to the dance.

How does one speak truth to power in the veiled police states of Elizabethan England or Putin’s Russia? Shakespeare rarely spoke truth directly into the face of power. He danced and mimed his way around it. This Russian Measure, without an actual Shakespearean word, does its own dance around power, toying with our desire for moral absolutes, and showing how power slyly speaks back to us with enchanting falsehoods.

Clark Hulse

Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.

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.

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


This production of Measure for Measure, performed in Russian by the actors of the Pushkin Theatre in Moscow in collaboration with Declan Donnellan’s London-based Cheek by Jowl inaugurates the “Shakespeare 400 Chicago” festivities under the aegis of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It brings to an American audience an important new non-Anglophone perspective on one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays” and—in the perception of many scholars—one of his most overtly political works.

First performed on December 26, 1604, before the new King of England, James I and VI of Scotland, and his court, Measure for Measure has been interpreted in turns as a didactic piece intended to instruct the new ruler in the arts of benevolent statesmanship and as a subtle critique of absolutism and the proto-modern state in which surveillance—as reflected in the Duke of Vienna’s incognito interventions in the lives of his subjects—has become a central mechanism of state control (two years later James would perform a similar function by watching the treason trial of the Gunpowder Plotters hidden behind a screen).

In the final decades of the reign of James’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, the Queen’s First Minister Lord Burghley monitored recusant households throughout England (especially in Lancashire) by drawing up maps of Catholic trouble-spots, while the Queen’s Spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham orchestrated an international network of spies and espionage intended to protect Protestant England from foreign invasion and domestic subversion. Denunciation of religious non-conformists and the persecution of Jesuit missionary priests became a disturbing feature of the last two decades of Elizabeth’s reign as reflected obliquely in many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays from Titus Andronicus (1594) to Hamlet (1599), the first con­cerned with the cycle of revenge that results from ideological and religious fanaticism, the latter with the constraints placed on the subject’s desire for revenge by an authoritarian state in which deviant behavior is regularly monitored by the paranoid ruler (Claudius) and his obsequious minister (Polonius, whom some critics have seen as a parody of Lord Burghley).

It is not surprising, therefore, that Hamlet has always played a central role in the Russian reception and appropriation of Shakespeare’s dramatic works. Effectively banned during Stalin’s rule (Claudius bearing too close a resemblance to the Soviet dictator), the play has been regularly performed in Russia since Stalin’s death in 1953. Grigori Kozintsev’s breathtaking film version Gamlet (1964), released during the so-called “thaw” of Nikita Khrushchev’s rule to coincide with the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, is unashamedly political in its emphasis on Denmark as a precursor of the modern totalitarian state and Hamlet as a dignified, all-suffering dissident avant-la-lettre. Stripped of much of the original dialogue, this extraordinary film relies on silence (as well as Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical score composed especially for the film) to convey its submerged message of political dissent. Littered with statues and busts of Claudius, Elsinore reflects Stalin’s notorious “cult of personality” and a prison-like Soviet Union where active dissent was too dangerous and silence was the only feasible response to tyranny and the state’s Orwellian deformation of truth and language. Significantly, Hamlet’s dying soliloquy is radically cut as the Danish Prince (beautifully and sensitively acted by Innokenty Smokhtunovsky) strides from Elsinore and sits defiantly on the rocks by the sea, uttering the words “the rest is silence” (Dal’neishee molchanie).

It is not surprising therefore that this Russian stage production of Measure for Measure should similarly begin and end with silence. The opening sequence consists of the actors moving in block formation
across the proscenium and between four red rectangular boxes as they silently watch and are watched by the man who is soon to become Vienna’s de facto dictator—Angelo—creepily portrayed by Andrei Kuzichev as a bespecta­cled Soviet-style bureaucrat. This opening dumb-show scene foreshadows the production’s subtle emphasis on the master-slave dialectic between the ruler and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed.

This reading of the play as an insidious collusion between the monarch and his subjects has a particularly significant relevance to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the head of state is democratically elected yet in many ways retains the kind of autocratic powers enjoyed by his Soviet (and Tsarist) predecessors. The Duke’s decision to remove himself temporarily from Vienna and leave his deputy Lord Angelo in charge of the state recalls the Russian presidential election of May 2008 when the outgoing President Putin nominated his own prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, as his successor, only to return to the presidency in 2014. During Medvedev’s incumbency as president Putin himself became prime minister—the power behind the throne so to speak—much as the Duke remains in Vienna to keep any eye on his subjects but also, inevitably, to monitor Angelo’s rule. Interestingly, Medvedev pursued an anti-corruption campaign much as Angelo initiates a puritanical crackdown on vice in Vienna.

Reflecting the new “westernized” Russia as well as the old Stalinist practice of unmasking enemies of the state, the final scene where Angelo is “unmasked” is also made to resemble a political rally or a reality-TV entertainment show in which Angelo’s dirty laundry (his cynical abandonment of Mariana) is publicly exposed to the taped sounds of cries of shock and disapproval from the public. In the course of the last act the Duke disguised as a friar is himself “unmasked.” Here the ruler and the ruled are not diametrically oppositional but caught in a disturbing dialectic. Even the head-strong and obstinate Isabella (powerfully performed by Anna Khalilulina)—who refuses to succumb to Angelo’s sexual bribery as well as her brother’s desperate pleas to give in to Angelo’s demands in order to save his own life—ends up acquiescing with the Duke’s demands by the end of the play. When the Duke (played by Alexander Arsentyev) asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage, she never speaks again, an equivocal response that is reflected in the actress’s ambiguous movements. Moving away from the Duke after he has proposed to her and refusing to surrender her nun’s veil, she paradoxically removes the veil herself to reveal her long hair and her sexual availability; later she dances with the Duke in a melancholy and surreal finale. Thus the ambiguities inherent in the denouement are never fully resolved. Does Isabella resist the Duke’s blandishments or does she acquiesce in them?

In a society where political deviance and defiance are routinely punished—where feminist renegade artists like Pussy Riot can go to prison for expressing public criticism of the Russian State and the Orthodox Church (a motif reflected in the secular Duke’s appropriation of the spiritual authority of a friar); in a society where the West (and particularly the United States) are systematically portrayed in the TV media as threats to Russian sovereignty and its moral integrity (in a manner reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Protestant England faced with a hostile Catholic Europe); where gay men are systematically bullied on the streets of cities and acts of public affection between them are outlawed (much as religious non-conformists were punished in Shakespeare’s England)—we should not be surprised to find in this devastating production the exploration of a dialectical power relation between the ruler and ruled reflected less in overtly political articulations of dissent and more in equivocal gestures of silent defiance. After all, this is itself what Shakespeare himself appears to be doing in at once extolling the new King of England James I as an enlightened benevolent ruler while critiquing the political absolutism inherent in his office. The well-known Shakespearean practice of sending mixed messages to the audience is in a sense precisely what this Russian production of Measure for Measure replicates by simultaneously endors­ing and critiquing the Putinesque political strategy of retaining control of the state in or out of office. The only character to transcend this collusion between the ruler and the ruled is the “Bohemian born” prisoner Barnardine—who refuses to be executed and who is reprieved from his death sentence by the magnanimous Duke. At the end of this production Barnardine (Igor Teplov) literally leaves the stage and disappears into the audience. Everyone else—both the actors on stage and the audience watching the play—are implicated in a “democratic” system where the potential for political dissent is increasingly restricted to the ambiguous realm of silence. At a playing time of less than two hours (with no intermission), this remarkable production of Measure for Measure is a powerful testament both to the Russian tradition of interpreting Shakespeare as a political playwright and to the ability of art to speak truth to power.


Alfred Thomas is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches courses on medieval and Renaissance literature. He has published eight books, including A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare (2007), Prague Palimpsest: Writing, Memory and the City (2010), Shakespeare, Dissent, and the Cold War (2014), and Reading Women in Late Medieval Europe: Anne of Bohemia and Chaucer’s Female Audience (2015). His new book project is tentatively titled Maimed Rights: Shakespeare, Religion, and the Middle Ages.