April 17, 2015, by Peter Kirwan
Measure for Measure (Cheek by Jowl) @ The Silk Street Theatre, Barbican
The production I travelled to Moscow to see performed before a native speaking audience has made it at last to the UK, with a new Duke, an updated design and English-language (Shakespearean) surtitles. Although Cheek by Jowl defines itself as a multinational company, performances at the Barbican feel like a homecoming – if nothing else, because the company’s offices are upstairs – and the production has only grown in the five months since I last saw it.
Much of what I had to say back in November pertained here too. This Measure for Measure remained the most visually interesting, politically challenging and beautifully choreographed version of the play I’ve ever seen. The highlight remained the bed-trick, the Duke leading a train of smiling dancers in a figure of eight around the lonely, half-naked Claudio as he plucked desperately at a double bass, rendered in his caresses as the body of a woman. This eerie image of Claudio plucking out his sin while waiting for his execution, while the Duke’s dance set up hope, defined a performance that found a terrible beauty in the juxtaposition of smiles and despair.
While I dislike surtitles as a rule, the advantage of them this time was the opportunity to align extreme actions onstage with their textual cues. Thus, Claudio’s near-rape on Isabella followed her angry claim that his desire for her to sleep with Angelo was a form of incest, suggesting that his subsequent attack was an emblematic realisation of that image, his anger bubbling into her nightmare (a reading perhaps justified by the Chorus intervening immediately to hold him aloft, and by his immediate situation on the double bass). Angelo’s explicit assault on Isabella, beginning with the unbearably creepy image of him removing her shoe and stocking and licking her toes while she shook with fear atop a table, came as the climax to his ‘wooing’, as he finally quietly told her that he would expend his lust upon her. And, from a seat much closer to the stage, it was clearer that Pompey was threatening a prostitute for failing to give him her money in their opening scene.
The most revealing subtleties were in the performance of Alexander Arsentyev, taking over the role of the Duke. Arsentyev’s performance was built on visible nervousness, from his opening flight from the Chorus of pleading city-dwellers to his awkward handing over of his chair of state to Angelo. The careful editing of the text built the entire play around him, so that his reaction (usually of horror, particularly to events in Angelo’s office and the prison) was prioritised. In this performance, it became clearer that the Duke of this production was crippled by the pressure of office, unable to cope with the stares and expectations of his people, and reduced to a wreck. The plan to rescue Claudio was, in this reading, an attempt to choreograph his own re-assumption of power on his own terms, as seemed most apparent in a ‘ta-da!’ as he unveiled Claudio to Isabella at the play’s climax. That his revelation was greeted with silent shock by most, tears by Angelo and diffidence by Claudio was a clear blow from which the Duke never recovered, and his clumsy attempts to save face as Isabella ignored his proposal were amusing but laden with pathos.
The production’s critique of an insecure Duke who is so desperate to be admired that he plays fast and loose with other people’s emotions perhaps sounds over-severe – the production’s strength was in maintaining the possibility of empathy with the Duke through his longings for intimacy in the prison (his awkwardness next to Juliet, Pompey and Barnardine in turn) and his unbridled joy when his plans worked out. My own sense of heartbreak at the end of the play was not in light of his moral position, but of the guilelessness with which he displayed the extent to which he was crushed. This was all the more unbearably painful viewed in tandem with the image of Isabella crawling on her belly to kiss her brother’s feet only to be rejected, and then of her standing near Claudio and Juliet as they cradled their baby, longing to join the family group but barred. As she took the Duke’s hand, the desperation of these two lonely people did not add up to a prospect of happiness.
The other key aspect that leaped out on a second viewing was Sergey Skornetskiy’s extraordinary lighting design, deceptively simple yet key to creating the spaces on Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s cavernous set. The main lighting was provided by severe overhead lamps, casting everything below into top-down shadows and ensuring the feeling of an interrogation room. When events moved to the streets, floods positioned in the wings bleached faces and suggested a neon underworld. And in the prison, floor lamps shone dazzling beams into the flies, exposing the Silk Street Theatre’s machinery and gantries above the actors, but also creating an echoing open space for the bustling city jail. Lights created spaces that provided and limited access: thus, the Duke and Isabella stood in a spotlight as he informed her of Claudio’s ‘death’, and another pool of light revealed Angelo at his desk with a bloody bag in front of him. Isabella was then able to cross the darkness between the two spaces, impossibly touching the bag before retreating to the Duke. As ever with Cheek by Jowl, the key work came in the transition between the otherwise unconnected spaces, the black between the pools of light becoming a space to which only Isabella had access, and which visualised her own coming-to-terms with a new idea.
This was an elegiac Measure for Measure but, with the benefit of surtitles, the wit of Alexander Feklistov’s performance as Lucio was much clearer. His casual disdain for the supposedly absent Duke was demonstrated as he lolled on a chair next to the disguised Duke, increasingly anxious and frustrated at the flagrant treason. Constantly fanning himself, this older fop loved an audience just as much as the Duke didn’t, and one of the pleasures of the final scene was seeing Lucio preen himself before being allowed to speak into the microphones, relishing his moment of public performance. But the key figure was still Barnardine (Igor Teplov), holding the Duke from behind and inducting him slowly into this underworld. The feverish nightmare world in which the Duke openly confronted Barnardine only to find his drunken underworld full of frozen nuns and explicit sex was contrasted with Barnardine’s terrified revelation at the play’s end, screaming in anticipation as police officers approached him. In Barnardine, the play found its most potent critique of the police state that was implicitly present throughout.
Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure was a dance, a fluid physical representation of the play as waltz, from the sweeping chain of the bed-trick to the room-spanning pirouettes of the company around the Duke’s desk to the final image of three broken couples moving slowly together as the lights faded. With a seductive grace, and nuanced performances that would take many viewings to unpack thoroughly, it’s a piece that will hopefully stay in the repertory for years yet. And happily, it’s being broadcast live next week on the company’s website – see here for details.