Cut down to one act and barely 100 minutes, this blisteringly good Russian language co-pro from Cheek by Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre is a breathless, intensely physical retelling propelled by a tireless cast.
In a contemporary Every-City, a weary Duke takes a sabbatical from leadership to roam his kingdom in the guise of a monk, observing the stewardship of his seemingly virtuous second-in-command Angelo. Naturally, this political heavyweight isn’t as lily-white as he claims to be, and the Duke’s attempts to expose Angelo’s hypocrisy – as he seduces Isabella, the desperate sister of a man Angelo condemned to death for fornication – lead to crossed wires for all involved.
The cast are outstanding, constantly switched-on and chillingly intense. Alexander Arsentyev’s ambiguous Duke has his city and the audience in the palm of his hand. Andrei Kuzichev’s Angelo is an ice-blooded Michael Gove, hiding capacity for horror behind his officious exterior. Isabella, the lynch-pin upon which the whole plot turns, avoids being the archetype of the wronged virgin and instead, in Anna Khalilulina’s hands, is bold, empowered and empathetic.
The combination of Irina Kashuba’s choreography and Declan Donnellan’s direction is so slick it’s basically witchcraft. Characters and props appear from thin air, or more accurately, from the middle of a crowd you never suspected was hiding anything. This horde are ever-present and it’s a brilliantly effective metaphor for the play’s themes of societal pressure and public vs. private hypocrisy. The Red-Light District set and lighting, from Nick Ormerod and Sergey Skornetskiy respectively, barely change throughout the performance, but when they do, it’s a masterful example of how the re-creation of a space can affect the emotion of a scene.
The only real difficulty in this production is the language barrier. With such heavy cutting and translation back to English from the Russian, at times the action can be hard to follow. A double pity, because reading the captions distracts from the superb performances onstage.
It’s worth bearing with the dodgy translations however, for not only is Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure a stunning example of theatrical craft, but a witty, gritty, thrillingly close-to-the-bone political satire – a genre that, let’s be honest, has rarely felt so relevant.