November 24, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

Measure for Measure (Cheek by Jowl) @ The Pushkin Theatre, Moscow

At a hair under two hours long, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s Measure for Measure stripped the play back to its bare bones. Elbow’s subplot was gone, Pompey’s tenure as hangman reduced to a few fragmented lines, Lucio’s relationship with the disguised Duke barely alluded to. In place of the intersecting subplots, Donnellan’s direction asserted a continuous, collective experience of an oppressive police state, the silencing of women, and the injustices of a penal system. Set against a set of five red squares, and performed by Cheek by Jowl’s Russian ensemble, the sense that this had something to say about the present was palpable.

Cheek by Jowl’s recurring trope of using an ever-present on-stage ensemble paid dividends for a play so closely concerned with surveillance. Every action was watched by the Chorus, who were sometimes helpless (gasping in horror at Isabella’s action) and sometimes active (pulling Claudio off his flailing sister when he attacked her). The constant dance of this Chorus around the stage dictated the scale of urgency; they dashed during moments of violence or stood still and agog when confronted by shock. With the key actions boiled down to those most pertinent, the presence of the ensemble placed emphasis as much on reaction, the real or imagined impact of acts on the whole community.

More significantly, though, the company’s constant presence enabled a fluidity of space that, while typical of Cheek by Jowl’s work, made particular sense of this play. Here, a collective couple of steps to the left could shift a scene from prison to Angelo’s reception room, the Duke and Isabella in particular finding their environments melting around them and placing them directly into new situations. The thinness of barriers between brothel and throne room, prison and monastery, made clear the interconnectedness of a world that depended on the welfare of all its members, while also forcing its key players to blur their initial motivations and subsequent decisions.

Valery Pankov made for an initially nervous Duke, bespectacled and nervous of his people, who pursued him about the stage during the long establishing sequence. The impression he gave was one of discomfort with his chair, given over gently, almost pleadingly, to Andrei Kuzichev’s similarly suited and bespectacled Angelo. When in the prison, seated permanently on a chair at the other side of the Provost’s desk, he retained his discomfort, giving blessings tentatively and allowing himself to be positioned by his supplicants and by the Provost.

However, when leading the crowd of spectators, his other side manifested. He regularly headed up the shifting body of onlookers, his facial expressions governing the communal reaction to events on stage. He paced back and forth, manoeuvring from the edges, initially holding back and only intervening to protect. This continued until the main set piece in which, having concocted the bed-trick plot, he led a jubilant danse makabre in a figure of eight around the stage, encircling Angelo, Mariana and Claudio. This wonderful sequence, scored by Claudio plucking at a double bass and performed with gleeful smiles by the line of dancers, moved fluidly from plot to realisation, the trick happening almost as suddenly as it was conceived, the weaving line moving participants into position.

The Duke’s delight in his own ingenuity, of course, was celebrated primarily in his own head. The production was punctuated by moments of shocking sexual violence towards Isabella, initially by Angelo during their second interview but also by her own brother, in a sequence that I wish I’d been able to attach more precisely to dialogue. Anna Khalilulina’s pure white novice’s habit and her open passion and aggression made for a fresh and distinctive Isabella, who cared openly and angrily for her brother. Isabella was unafraid to scorn Angelo, to admonish her brother, to scratch at faces or scream in rage when shouted down. Early in the production it was clear that her zeal for more strictures in the nunnery was borne not of piety but of her passionate nature that insisted everything should be achieved now, as immediately and ideally as possible, and this was the attitude which she brought to her dealings with men, approaching them with confidence and force. Yet she was in turn met by force, threatened and manhandled, her skirts pulled up and her strength undermined. To see her so abused at the hands of her furious brother was particularly upsetting.

It was women who suffered most in this oppressive, male-dominated environment. Isabella’s repeated forcing down by men might be seen as just a further iteration of the brief glimpse of the clearing out of the brothels, in which a furious Pompey dragged out a prostitute by her hair and threatened to slit her throat. While Pompey was in his turn stripped and hosed down in prison (to the Duke’s fascination), it was the women who commanded visual attention, whether in the glimpses of Anastasia Lebedeva’s heavily pregnant Juliet moving uncomfortably in prison clothes or Elmira Mirel’s Mariana reliving her abandonment by Angelo and resorting to shots.

Men, by contrast, seemed to find a kind of solidarity, and the presence of several uniformed police officers to stand with Angelo and the Duke at different stages reinforced a collective male dominance. Alexander Matrosov found himself in an uncomfortable position during the first interview between Angelo and Isabella as, as the Provost, he had to restrain and intervention when Isabella overstepped boundaries, while also being clearly in sympathy with her position. Yet there was a more touching male solidarity in the person of Barnardine (Igor Teplov) who, from the moment of the Duke donning a Friar’s robe, held gently on to his leader. As the crowd of spectators moved about the stage, Barnardine was always at the front, and when the Duke was with them Barnardine held onto him-comforting him, protecting him. Their first ‘real’ meeting saw Barnardine sitting on the Duke’s lap, clinging onto him in a gesture of love and childish affection that was erotically charged (particularly following the Duke’s gaze at Pompey’s naked body). The gentle, affectionate relationship of the two men contrasted sharply with the violence being visited against the women.

The prison became in this sense a kind of refuge, in which Pompey and Barnardine were friendly to the Duke’s position. Nonetheless, the justice system was shown to expose and entrap, made visually clear as three of the red blocks decorating the stage were spun around to reveal Claudio seated, a bag over his head; Pompey and the prostitute rutting; and Isabella frozen in an imploring position. The Duke’s whirling world, visually represented by the fast movement of the rest of the cast about the stage, left him distracted as he attempted to manoeuvre a solution following Angelo’s order for Claudio’s head. Peter Rykov, as Claudio, stood centrally from the point of his attack on Isabella, playing a double bass impassively until his fate was sealed, situating him as the victim of the danse makabre that span around him.

All of this came together in the final scene. The house lights were raised and a microphone placed at the front of the stage, and a red carpet rolled out. With the roars of a crowd heard over the speakers and supplicants emerging from the audience, the stage was shifted to a public performance of grief, contrition and manipulation. This was the Duke’s scene, his power unquestioned and supported by a growing number of police who gagged the women when they spoke out and kept Alexander Feklistov’s comedic, foppish, self-fanning Lucio under observation. The embarrassment of the public figures as their secrets came out was effectively realised as they squinted and smiled under the glare of lights and the gaze of the audience. Yet the final moments were the most powerful as, first, Claudio ignored his sister as she clutched as his feet for anguished forgiveness, and then as Isabella ignored the Duke’s proposal to watch her brother and Juliet cradle their child. The scene finished with three dances: Claudio and Juliet waltzing, their eyes locked on their baby; Mariana whirling a numb, static Angelo around; and, finally, Isabella turning to the Duke as the one man who continued to look at her and dancing with him, while keeping her eyes turned away from him. The fade to black, with the rest of the cast looking on, left these three dances continuing without obvious conclusion.

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