“We have strict statutes and most biting laws”
Cheek By Jowl’s Russian-language take on The Tempest is seared on my memory as a most vivid interpretation of the play that I can’t imagine being bettered – any other version of Miranda and Caliban’s relationship just feels wrong now. So the news that their collaborators from Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre were returning once again to the Barbican at the end of a major tour of another of Shakespeare’s plays, Measure for Measure. And once again, Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod’s reimagining makes an indelible stamp that ensuing productions at the Globe and Young Vic will have to work hard to live up to.
Starting off very much in the abstract as the 13-strong company move as an amorphous single body in and out of the shadows of Ormerod’s container-strewn set, murkily lit by Sergey Skornetskiy. But as the cast make circuit after circuit, subtle differences in their movements set the scene of this particular Vienna, a world where authoritarian rule dominates harshly, and in which individual freedoms are challenged. As its ruler, Alexander Arsentyev’s Duke appears paralysed by a crisis of faith and so surrenders the pressures of ruling to his bureaucratic deputy Angelo, a fervent Andrei Kuzichev, but as this is Shakespeare, he disguises himself as a friar and hangs out nearby to observe the outcome.
The propulsive flowing power of the ensemble never ceases throughout this production, adding both a pacey dynamism that never flags across the interval-free running time (the way in which the big red boxes are used to carve speedy passage through several scenes is inspired) and an organic extension to the action, echoing responses and judgement like a Greek Chorus. It is a hugely effective theatrical treatment and one which springs constant surprises – striking musical interludes, hypnotic choreography, heart-stopping threats of violence, and an eroticism that is as delicious as it is depraved. In the same breath, Angelo condemns Petr Rykov’s outrageously strapping Claudio for fornication but has no problem licking the feet of Claudio’s sister Isabella as she begs for clemency.
This sense of corrupt government power resonates strongly, especially in the chilling final scene as the apparently reformed Duke revels in controlling events as much as he ever has, and Anna Khalilulina’s astute Isabella has little choice but to comply. And what is remarkable is that the story-telling remains crystal clear even through such a stylised interpretation and the Russian language. Surtitles are provided but there’s as much to be gained by immersing oneself in the sound and elegant fury of the work here and realising how much you comprehend anyway. Dark and disturbing, melancholic and memorable, Cheek by Jowl swap out “problem play” for “thought-provoking” and the results are powerful indeed. Stunning.