Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare (Sydney Festival)

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare.  Cheek by Jowl (Exec Dir Eleanor Lang)  with Pushkin Theatre (Art Dir Evgeny Pisarev) (UK/Russia) at Roslyn Packer Theatre (home of Sydney Theatre Company), January 7-11, 2017.

Creative Team:
Director – Declan Donnellan; Designer – Nick Ormerod; Lighting – Sergey Skornetskiy; Composer – Pavel Akimkin; Choreographer – Irina Kashuba
Photos by Johan Persson

Duke – Alexander Arsentyev; Isabella – Anna Khalilulina
Angelo – Andrei Kuzichev; Mariana / Mistress Overdone – Elmira Mirel
Claudio – Kiryl Dytsevich; Juliet / Francisca – Anastasia Lebedeva
Escalus – Iurii Rumiantcev; Lucio – Alexander Feklistov; Provost – Alexander Matrosov; Executioner – Ivan Litvinenko; Elbow – Nikolay Kislichenko; Barnadine – Igor Teplov; Pompey / Friar Peter – Alexey Rakhmanov

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 11

I found myself unwilling to accept the style of this strongly Continental European theatrical form until perhaps halfway through its 110 uninterrupted minutes.  But the fault was mine.  Measure for Measure, indeed.

Shakespeare’s intellect is revealed in this production taking us far beyond what superficially seems to be a romance in which a moral dilemma is resolved to provide satisfaction all round – with three couples dancing happily: the put-upon Isabella with the Duke of reformed understanding; the illegitimate lovers Claudio and Juliet, and their baby; the Duke’s deputy, the unreconstructed patriarchal sexual predator, ironically named Angelo, with Mariana, the woman who secretly took Isabella’s place for Angelo to rape.

Using an expressionist approach drawn from the traditions established by such giants of European theatre as Bertolt Brecht and Jerzy Grotowski, the comedy of misplaced justice and governmental power becomes a forensic exposé, highly significant right now in Australian politics.  The dancing at the end is tinged with dark edges, even for the unmarried couple now with their child who have received proper justice.  What guarantee do even they have of genuine humane treatment as governments change?

Centrelink’s threatening form of letters making often untrue debt payment demands comes to mind, among other political issues this week.

By the time the play had ended I was thoroughly engaged among an audience giving rousing appreciative extended applause – at 4 in the afternoon, what’s more.

Reflecting on the experience, I see that it was the Brechtian ‘alienation effect’ that kept my empathy for the characters at bay.  This was done by the whole cast moving as a group in highly choreographed formations to different locations, even including from downstage left and right apparently inspecting us in the audience.  At points, one character would be left standing as the others moved on – the key figures of the Duke, the wealthy Escalus, the Friar Peter with a spare cloak for the Duke’s disguise, Angelo, and the unfortunate trainee nun Isabella, sister of Claudio, condemned to death for his illicit relationship with Juliet. And so our focus was heightened on the central characters in a complex legalistic moral argument, as Angelo tries to force himself upon Isabella, claiming that if she allows him to have his way, he will (acting on behalf of the disguised apparently absent Duke) let her brother live.

The clever aspect of the design and directing, as the Duke as Friar John watches events from the point of view of an ordinary citizen, was to maintain the focus objectively on the moral argument until the very end – the alienation effect – better even than Brecht himself had done.  For example, if there’s one scene you will remember from Mother Courage and her Children, it is Katrin being shot as she drums to alert the village below of an impending attack.  We identify purely emotionally with her and the villagers, and against the soldiers at this point.  The ‘alienation effect’, of thinking abstractly about the power situation, has flown away – and Katrin’s mother seems nothing but hard-hearted in the final scene.

I suspect, though I don’t think anyone can say how Shakespeare’s audience saw the original production of Measure for Measure, that he would be pleased to see how Declan Donnellan has kept us on the edge as the couples dance into the blackout.  Claudio and Juliet are engrossed in each other, but maybe not wanting to think about their future reality.  Marianne takes Angelo in hand and makes him dance, like the uncomprehending puppet he really is.  She wants him for her own purposes.  And the Duke’s insistent expectation that Isabella, the woman who has had to twist and turn against the forces of overwhelming power, will now easily marry him, leaves her in shock.  She hesitates to dance, and only does so on notice – though he doesn’t seem to notice her doubts.

The music is jolly, and we all found ourselves clapping in time and cheering for the third ‘curtain’ call – by then celebrating both the high quality of the acting and design, appreciating the practitioners at work – and recognising the intellectual stamina in maintaining a production to match Shakespeare’s best intentions.

Anna Khalilulina and Kiryl Dytsevich
as Isabella and her brother Claudio
in Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Cheek by Jowl with Pushkin Theatre Moscow