Measure for Measure is a play about the machinery of state power. Cheek By Jowl’s excellent new touring production exposes the operation of the hardware of the law in all of its clanking, creaking reality.
The setting is a nondescript, modern nation (although the shadow of Putin’s regime looms large over this Russian-language adaptation). The Duke has gone incognito – unable to cope with his power and immense popularity, he disguises himself as a monk and slips into the streets to walk amongst his oblivious subjects. He hands over power to Angelo, a desiccated bureaucrat played to sinister perfection by Andrei Kuzichev, who tries to coerce Isabella (Anna Khalilunina) into exchanging her virginity for clemency for her brother, Claudio, who is on death row. Angelo’s attempted seduction is at once toe-curlingly awkward and deeply menacing, channeling the fantasy of every office creep as he slowly removes his watch and glasses and flips his tie over his shoulder.
The play is heavily cut, but there are long stretches of highly complex dialogue. These remain, for the most part, taut – ironically, the subtitles make some of them easier to follow precisely.
But what distinguishes this production is its physicality, and the material literality of the political punishments, promotions and power struggles that the plot enacts. We are not simply told that a character is being sent to prison, but we see him stripped of his clothing, hosed down and put into uniform. When the red carpet is rolled out for the Duke’s return, there is a pause as Angelo picks bits of fluff from it; the awkward physical reality of the emblems of power is made manifest.
This is paralleled by the judicious use of elements of physical theatre. An omnipresent chorus constantly hovers on the edges of the stage, forming rapidly shifting screens, walls, and crowds. Dance is a recurring motif, and forms the play’s notoriously and fiendishly problematic conclusion – Claudio and Juliet waltz with eyes locked on their baby, Mariana whirling round a stunned, static Angelo, and finally Isabella refusing to meet the Duke’s gaze even as he leads her.
The lights go down before the dance is over – not only are there no happy endings in this play, but we have the nightmarish sense that there is no ending at all.
Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure was on at the Oxford Playhouse from 28th April to 2nd May.