First published in The Times, Friday August 18 2016
Of all Shakespeare’s problem plays, Measure for Measure is the one that leaves the sourest taste in the mouth. Though the story ends in the usual flurry of marriages demanded by the rules of comedy, two of these unions are meted out as punishments, while all the characters – even the saintly Isabella – have become compromised in some way. Theatre directors are increasingly unwilling to summon up a festive mood for such an unremittingly pessimistic depiction of corrupted power and human sexuality and relationships.
This Russian-language production, produced by Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre, Moscow, in a co-production with the Barbican, certainly doesn’t flinch from the queasier aspects of the story. The wordless ten-minute opening sequence, in which the ensemble runs around the open stage in a tight herd, establishes the atmosphere of fear and paranoia in Vincentio’s (Alexander Arsentyev) Vienna, whose government the duke has temporarily handed over to the uncompromising Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev).
Pic: Johan Persson
The bold red-and-black colour scheme of Nick Ormerod’s design is employed to represent, variously, totalitarianism, religious kitsch and sexual deviance and sleaze. At one point the three red cubes that form the set’s centrepiece rotate to reveal a young prisoner strapped in the electric chair; Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), the novitiate, at prayer; and a couple enjoying frantic sex.
By far the most intriguing aspect of Declan Donnellan’s production is its emphasis on the theme of snooping and surveillance, whether at the level of the state or via the secrets imparted to Vincentio’s “friar” in the quiet of the confessional. Yet, it’s a theme that remains underdeveloped, and over the course of two hours, the production feels rather listless and uninvolving.
A few lighter moments might have injected some life into the plodding pace, but here humour is restricted to mugging from Alexander Feklistov as a louche Lucio, and despite decent performances from Kuzichev as the crooked, frightened despot and Khalilulina as an embattled Isabella, characterisation is generally denoted by what outfit any given actor is wearing.
The final mirthless dance between the three couples that emerge from all the chaos offers a glimpse of the irony and inspiration lack elsewhere. Most of the company’s energies appear to have been reserved for the many curtain calls they take at the end.