MEASURE FOR MEASURE - SYDNEY FESTIVAL
MEASURE FOR MEASURE, Cheek by Jowl with Pushkin Theatre Productions for Sydney Festival at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 7-11 January 2017. Photography by Prudence Upton
Being listed as one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays has its problems, not least that it’s rarely staged and therefore audiences are unfamiliar with it. Then there’s the nature of the “problem” aspect itself: moral and dramatic ambiguity which can leave the viewer uncertain. Ironically however, these factors now make Measure For Measure as appropriate to these post-truth, ethic-free times as they were when the play was written (1603 or thereabouts).
Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan has taken the shapeshifting principles underlying the narrative and made them physical. From the opening moments on a bare stage bounded by five huge red boxes, the Pushkin company of 13 mostly moves as one, with the kinetic sense of a wave either collecting or leaving behind one or other of their number. It’s an ingenious and simple way of engineering entrances and exits and it engages the eye and the mind and takes us along too.
This is particularly useful as it would be easy for a non-Russian speaker to get lost. The English surtitles, although large and easy to read, necessarily change as fast as the dialogue and there are times when being a speed reader would be handy. On the other hand, the clarity of the action is such one can also just forget them and go with the flow.
At one hour and 50 minutes no interval, this production is engrossing, focused and uncomfortably recognisable. Its characters’ various dilemmas are rolled out and explored and are demonstrably universal and contemporary. The Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) hands over the keys to the city in favour of the good and moral Lord Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) so that he can take a break and find himself.
As is so often the case when power lands in the lap of a hitherto normal man, Angelo immediately goes the full Duterte and starts on a brutal campaign to enforce long-ignored laws of extreme rectitude. Caught in this tsunami of righteousness are Claudio and Juliet (Kiryl Dytsevich and Anastasia Lebedeva), betrothed lovers whose crime is pregnancy before marriage.
Claudio is condemned to death and his sister, the nun Isabella (Anna Khalilulina) goes to Angelo to plead for mercy. Being a man with the kind of moral judgment that would be recognised and approved by many modern politicians, Angelo offers to trade Claudio’s life for his sister’s virtue. When the Duke returns, disguised as a mendicant friar, the plot(s) take on the absurd intricacies of deepest Shakespeare. And he is, of course, only reminded of and returned to his responsibilities by the truly righteous prisoner Barnardine (Igor Teplov).
Nevertheless, the chaotic world of this city and its people are no more unlikely than present-day Canberra, Washington DC, Moscow, London or, in its pathetically grubby way, Macquarie Street. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and you don’t have to be George Orwell to see it.
Consequently, there’s not a lot to laugh at in this play, but that doesn’t make it any the less captivating in Donnellan’s clever production, with these highly committed and captivating Russian actors. Nick Ormerod’s sparse design is well suited to the Ros’s tricky stage and allows the human action to be played out to maximum effect.
Seeing it on its second night in Sydney when there was little English to be heard in the packed auditorium was an experience in itself. It was also a reminder that the city’s more than 100 nationalities rarely get a chance to hear or see from their original cultures. The rapt attention and silence of the audience was fascinating and made a memorable production into an indelible one. Thanks, Sydney Festival.