Thursday, January 12, 2017

Measure for Measure

Cheek By Jowl with Pushkin Theatre Moscow present MEASURE FOR MEASURE, as part of the Sydney Festival, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. 7-11 January.

Some once said something like: If you want to know a man, give him power. (George Brandis, Bronwyn Bishop, Susan Ley, Alan Trudge, et al?)

In MEASURE FOR MEASURE (1603-4), William Shakespeare's play, The Duke of Vienna, Angelo and Isabella particularly are given power and what we see is there hu-maness. That all three have both God and the Devil moving their actions, each of those 'concepts' of God and Devil taking control-turn when necessary. They are humans, full of ambiguities of imagination and behaviour in their need to live, to survive. This play along with ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (1602-4) and TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (1602) were all written in the dying days of Queen Elizabeth's reign, in a city in the nervous fret of who was to inherit the throne, and whether it would be an orderly change or civil war. The citizens in a state of uncertainty, indulging in the panic of the unknown change. 2017 seems to have that worldly insecurity shaping our lives. These plays do not have the transcendent good humour of the comedies or the cosmic redemption of the tragedies. They all have a setting that is starkly naturalistic and the life of the plays are worldly and profane. None more so than in MEASURE FOR MEASURE.

This production, Directed by Declan Donnellan, relatively, brushes lightly the result of the Duke's neglect of his responsibilities and only uses the underworld characters, of pimps, whores and thieves, that Shakespeare created, when necessary to facilitate his focus on the officials and the moral dilemma of usage of power in the 'delicate' hands of men and women who have animal needs alongside their personal moral beliefs, boundaries. The Madam of Shakespeare's play is a Mistress Overdone, and Overdone is an image code to understand the 'hot house' satire that is being investigated here.

This Cheek By Jowl production is performed in Russian and is dressed in contemporary clothing and as such shifts the 'understanding' of what this company is doing - saying - with this play, to the circumstances, context, of Putin's Russia (perhaps). Although, the scope of the play's happenings has universal parallels that we can readily draw for our times in our country. MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a very modern play.

Despite that the performance is in Russian and supported by surtitles and that the surtitles seem to be more complicated and true to Shakespeare's text than what the actors seem to speaking - it seemed to be delivered in a very vernacular manner - there is a cool lucidity to what is being communicated in a largely but subtly edited text. It runs less than two hours. I have to admit that the more you knew of the play the easier that experience may have been - I have worked in production twice and know the major scenes between Angelo and Isabella, and her brother Claudio quite well (some of Shakespeare's best) - so, I saw this work from a relative state of advantage.

Mr Donnellan has developed a chorus of movement for the performers situated around five hot-red cube boxes in a black box surround overhung with a 'roof' of lighting and unfolds the scenes with economic fleet-footed speed. The acting from this company is tight and focused with every gesture and word resonant with intention - the production has been on a long international tour and is excitingly fresh and gives no appearance of weariness from repetition. Anna Khalilulina as Isabella and Andrei Kuzichev as Angelo are particularly wonderful, but all the ensemble are alert and transformative in their tasks. The vocal work strong and nuanced, the physical work disciplined and stylised. The production finishes with the principals waltzing (Viennese waltzing) away the ambiguities of the world of the play - a striking image. The Composer, Pavel Akimkin makes a striking contribution to the storytelling and the Lighting by Sergey Skornetskly supports the scenic decisions of Designer Nick Omerrod.

The contrast of clarity of purpose between the Benedict Andrews' MEASURE FOR MEASURE of a few years ago at Belvoir is worth noting. Here, Mr Donnellan serves a vision of the play with refined imagery and no flourishes of auteur tricks drawing attention to themselves. Its intelligence and immediacy resounds unfailingly, grippingly. This Cheek By Jowl production is a much more satisfactory experience than their last visit at a Sydney Festival with 'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE.

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