Shakespeare’s works are revered for many reasons, but perhaps none more-so than the beauty of his language. Phrases like “to be, or not to be” and “All the world’s a stage” have become staples of colloquial jargon. But can his work transcend even that, and still retain its cultural potency?
Declan Donnellan’s production of Measure For Measure proves conclusively that it can. Donnellan, who has risen to prominence in the art world for his work as joint-artistic director of the UK based international theater company Cheek by Jowl, just premiered his latest work; an all-Russian production of Measure for Measure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. While no stranger to working with the bard in Russian (he actually formed a Russian company of actors in Moscow in 1999), this represents Cheek by Jowl’s first collaboration with Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre.
Known as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, Measure for Measure defies its billing as a comedy to explore adult themes of politics, sex, power and temptation. The play is noted (spoilers) for its quite unsatisfactory lack of a reasonable conclusion. Essentially it spirals down in a tidal wave of corruption and manipulation until suddenly everyone just gets married and the play concludes. Shakespeare was exploring the bounds of the comedic format, and the result is extremely dark.
Rykov with his bass as Khalilulina dances by
Donnellan’s production takes advantage of the dark comedy, using a technique called ‘sparrow-flocking’ in which the cast is onstage at all times, running from corner to corner and leaving behind players needed for each scene. Thus characters watch themselves be betrayed in a haunting commentary on abuse of political power. This satire culminates in Petr Rykov, as Claudio, sitting in the center of the stage, strumming an upright bass as he awaits death. As he plays a morose yet bouncy Russian folk tune as the rest of the cast dances around him. The theme of dancing to represent struggles for power and death is a recurring one throughout the play, with the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) teaming up with an exceptionally crazed Barandine (Igor Teplov) while contemplating his condition in prison.
Alexey Rakhmanov as Pompey dragging Anastasia Lebedeva across the street as an act of defiance, as the 'offstage' duke watches in horror from the ensemble.
Anna Khalilulina’s Isabella is also far from orthodox, wearing a strikingly form fitting habit and (as is revealed in a tense near-rape scene with Andrei Kuzichev’s Angelo) no underwear. The production oscillates between encouraging audience participation and unfolding scenes through a voyeuristic lens. This is accentuated by an unusually open set, extending to the back of the theater, exposing blackness. Five large red cubes, in a semi-rectangle, comprise the only set fixtures. During the Duke’s aforementioned dance, they revolve around to show different characters lit by Red-light district-esc LEDs.
A chilling Kuzichev as Angelo
Donnellan’s production does not even need the subtitles hanging above it to be understood. His intentions are clearly demonstrated thanks to an exceptionally well-rounded ensemble performance and convincing costumes. His actors show dedication and focus throughout the play, as blocking is crucial to such a show, though little to none of it can be marked. Whether or not you have any familiarity with the play, and if you speak little or no Russian, this is still a must see. Scan the Sparknotes in the cab over, and don’t miss Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater as the kick off the city wide, year-long celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death!