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Review: Measure For Measure @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Cheek By Jowl’s prolonged love affair with Russian Theatre, which has previously found success in the form of 2005’s Three Sisters and 2011’s The Tempest, has again born fruit with its production of Shakespeare’s little performed Measure For Measure. Performed entirely in Russian (but thankfully translated in English surtitles), Measure For Measure is an eclectic two-hour blast that mixes the tragedy and the comedy with panache.

Measure For Measure does not sit happily under any of the three traditional Shakespeare categories, and is often called a ‘problem play’ as a result. It is laden with recognisable comic devices – mistaken identity, undercover agents, and a classic domestic drama to boot – but much darker, much juicier, much more tragic themes of sexual depravity and cynical manipulation abound also.

When the Duke of Vienna (Alexander Arsentyev) seemingly vacates his city for foreign lands, his deputy Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) rules with an iron fist, offering no mercy to those found guilty of lechery – until, that is, his stifled sexuality is awakened by the pleas of the chaste Isabella (Anna Khalilulina) for her brother’s life. Flouting the laws he has enforced, he attempts to coerce a disgusted Isabella to sleep with him, but is foiled by the Duke himself, who – lo and behold – has been masquerading as a kindly monk all along, unbeknownst to all but the audience. Cheek By Jowl’s production somehow blends the humour and the horror into one – and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable mish-mash of laughter and shock.

Kuzichev is brilliant. His Angelo is a familiar tight-lipped bureaucrat at first, anonymous in his polished shoes and straightened tie, yet this only serves to make the eruption of his sexual fantasy all the more disturbing and, worryingly, all the more relatable. “Dost thou desire her foully for those things that make her good?” asks Angelo of himself (in Russian, remember), touching upon some undeniably relatable human instinct, squashed through social shame today, just as it was in the early 17th Century.

Khalilulina’s Isabella does not provoke such uncomfortable instincts perhaps as much as it should. True, her ceaseless obsession with her own virtue grates on the audience’s patience – she is a prim girl in a clean white dress and wants to keep it that way – but it engenders annoyance more than anything. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that her refusal to degrade herself to save her brother’s life is seen as heartless, not virtuous. Arsentyev is competent if not electric as the Duke-cum-Monk, but his earnestness and slightly bumbling nature provide some amusement. Alexander Feklistov gets more laughs with his self-important yet eternally side-lined Lucio, a friend of Isabella’s brother.

Measure For Measure’s feverish pace forcibly reminds one of Cheek By Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore from 2012, which embraced similar themes of sexual transgression. Director Declan Donnellan’s cast remain on stage for the duration, just as they did in the earlier production – witnesses, voyeurs and judges all in one. It is an effective device, and he can hardly be blamed for re-using it. The constant presence of watchful eyes is a powerful substitute for society’s judgemental gaze. Nick Ormerod’s design is gloriously jumbled, a mixture of sharp suits, prison rags, plain nun’s habits and some atrocious leather get-ups lifted straight out of Mad Max II.

Commendably, Cheek By Jowl’s production does not try to force this ‘problem play’ into a box it does not fit. Donnellan is happy to leave this square peg where it lies, far from that tempting round hole. The funny and the fury are chucked together as wrote and simply sit happily alongside each other. The resulting play is an amusing, disquieting, thought-provoking, and ultimately entertaining exploration of our twisted sexuality.

4/5

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