Sydney Festival Review: Measure for Measure is a dynamic delight (Performances to 11 January)

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The physical and comedic talents of a dynamic cast smash through the language barrier in this Russian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Combined with powerful design and masterful direction, Cheek by Jowl’s production is a treat for theatre fans and a highlight of the 2017 Sydney Festival lineup.

Measure for Measure is a Shakespearean comedy that deals with the subjects of morality and crime and punishment. The Duke of Vienna, struggling with his own morals and approach to the rule of law, announces he is departing the city on some business, leaving strict Judge, Angelo, in charge. But instead of leaving the city, the Duke disguises himself as a friar and walks the streets of his city incognito, observing his people and how they respond to the tougher hand of his successor.

As well as making a decree that all brothels outside the city are to be closed down, Angelo passes sentence on Claudio, who has been found guilty of fornication, having gotten his soon-to-be wife, Juliette, pregnant out of wedlock. Claudio is sentenced to death, by beheading. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, an apprentice nun, pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life to be spared. Angelo agrees to free Claudio on one condition: that Isabella give up her virginity to him. Thus setting in motion a moral dilemma that forces all the characters to examine their own virtue.

Designer Nick Ormerod’s set is minimal, but makes superb use of the huge Roslyn Packer Theatre stage. Dominated by four oversized red cubes, spaced evenly across the stage, the opening scenes are played out on the front half of the stage. Industrial lights hanging from above act as mini spotlights, casting the actors periodically in shadow.

As the action builds, the stark rear of the stage is revealed, giving the actors more space to play with. A simple trestle table and wooden chairs make up the remainder of the set pieces, moved by the actors as required. The effect is brutal, cold and smacks of political propaganda.

mfm-3The huge performance space is perfect for the physical style adopted by director Declan Donnellan. Movement is used to generate energy, build tension and redirect the audience’s attention. The play opens with all the cast members grouped together, traversing the stage as one, until a single actor breaks from the pack. The group now seems to represent his inner monologue, reflecting his thoughts through gesture. As the play continues, the group remains onstage, observing the action from a distance, representing the disguised Duke.

The collective motion is also used as a clever device with which to change the scene; the actors playing the scene step out from the group, along with any required props, while the group continues to run past. It is a brilliantly conceived manoeuvre that works a bit like misdirection in a magic act.

All the performances in Measure for Measure are engaging and polished. The passion of the Russian language alone brings an energy to the stage, but it is perfectly balanced with the facial expressions, comic timing and physical presence of the actors. As the Duke, Alexander Arsentyev is commanding, compassionate and conflicted. Andrei Kuzichev plays Angelo with an austere stillness that invokes the personality of an institutionalised government man. As Isabella, Anna Khalilulina is strong, perhaps overtly so, but certainly embodies the virtuous novice. The surprise star of the show is Lucio, played with comic abandon by Alexander Feklistov. His playfulness and sense of timing are evident even if you don’t speak Russian.

Accompanying the action is a rich soundscape, imagined by composer Pavel Akimkin. Metallic, factory-esque clanking is interspersed by traditional Russian folk music, and the use of microphones and crowd sounds at the climax of the piece is inspired.

Irina Kashuba’s realistic costumes are a good juxtaposition against the starkness of the set design. There are minimal costume changes, but the few that occur in view of the audience remind us of how we place so much importance on our own ‘uniforms’.

mfm-2The idea of sitting through 110 minutes of Shakespeare performed entirely in Russian may be a bridge too far for some, but a little pre-show preparation makes Cheek By Jowl’s collaboration with Pushkin Theatre Moscow worth the effort.

First, when booking tickets, aim for the middle or back of the stalls or dress circle. The English surtitles helpfully accompanying the performance are set quite high above the stage. Even though the first two rows are being sold at a discount, non-Russian speakers will find the constant head tilting required to view the surtitles in the closer seats a trifle wearing.

Next, I highly recommend having a good understanding of the plot before attending, as it frees you up to watch the action rather than simply reading the surtitles. Not to mention the fact that the words you are reading are written in Elizabethan verse, which is not always readily interpreted on first view. And in some cases the text flashes by so quickly it is impossible to read in time.

Finally, avoid that extra drink at dinner – there is no interval!

With all that said, this is a very amusing production, cleverly staged and drew a standing ovation from the opening night crowd.

Measure for Measure is playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until 11 January as part of the Sydney Festival. For tickets, visit the Sydney Festival website.

The reviewer attended opening night on Saturday 7th January.

Photo credit Johan Persson