Review: Cheek By Jowl's Russian invasion at the Barbican with Measure for Measure
Cheek By Jowl have done it again. This time they've brought a Russian flavour to Shakespeare's Measure For Measure. It's a Russian cast, performed in Russian* and it's rather taken me prisoner.
The run time is trimmed down to around two hours 10 straight through - longer than one hour 45 minutes it says on the website - and opens with the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) leaving Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) in charge.
All the cast are on stage and move as one like a swarm of insects with the Duke gradually becoming separated. No words are spoken but this feels like part rejection, part ejection and part choice.
And so the scene is set for his disguised return and his journey back to the path of leadership. It is a journey of revelations and lessons through the injustice, immorality and corruption that he witnesses.
Angelo in deciding to follow the law to the letter has had Claudio (Peter Rykov) imprisoned and sentenced to death for getting a woman pregnant outside marriage.
Claudio's sister Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), who is about to take Holy Orders, is persuaded to try and intervene and get the sentence overturned. It pits compassion, leniency and purity against lust and corruption. Angelo holds the power of justice but uses it to try and satisfy his own desire.
I've not seen Measure For Measure before but director Declan Donellan has created a world that is dark, grubby and dictatorial but all the more dangerous for being conducted under the banner of justice.
It makes Isabella's task all the more precarious and Khalilulina's performance was unlike anything I've seen before. Repulsion, fear, agony, horror, desperation and grief - all are evident at times without even needing to understand what she is saying.
The swarming effect continues throughout, an intimidating gang culture that scoops up characters at the end of a scene and then deposits those for for the next. It weaves in and out three red boxes at the back of the stage which are occasionally rotated to represent prison cells or tableau depicting the extremes of society.
There is wit and humour but this isn't a comedy, it feels bleak and dangerous and even in the final dance the resolution isn't a wholly happy one. It is a production that is darkly rich, pulsating in passion and one that I haven't stopped thinking about since I saw it. This isn't the Shakespeare of the RSC or West End this is Cheek By Jowl Shakespeare and I loved it.
Measure for Measure runs at the Barbican's Silk Street Theatre until April 25 and there will also be a live stream via the web on April 22.
* The seating is raked from stage level with the surtitle screen above the stage and from my second row seat I had to continually decide whether to read or watch as I couldn't do both at the same time. I got enough of the story and performance for it not to spoil it but for an easier viewing experience probably best to go for seats further back so the surtitles are more on eye-level.
Declan Donellan directed Lydia Wilson in 'Tis Pity She's A Whore and Wilson was in Never Let Me Go with Carey Mulligan who plays Mr W's wife in Suffragette which is out later this year.