For some, seeing Shakespeare in English is complicated enough. For the crowd that packed into the Roslyn Packer theatre on Sunday night to see Cheek by Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre perform Measure for Measure, there was a unique challenge: Shakespeare performed in Russian, with English surtitles. Although Russian Shakespeare may seem inaccessible, the sexual politics and power games that fuel this play about corruption is just as understandable in a post-Trump era as it was in 17th century Vienna, language barrier or no language barrier.
In the world of the play, Vienna teems with brothels, immorality and venereal diseases. The Duke (Alexander Arstentyev), unwilling to deal with it himself, relinquishes control to Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) who infuses his new power with self-righteous vigour. Old forgotten laws forbidding sex before marriage are reintroduced, punishable by death. When an engaged man impregnates his fiancé, his Isabella, a nun, (Anna Khalilulina) pleads with Angelo to pardon him.Angelo takes advantage of her vulnerability, falsely promising to help her in exchange for her virginity.
Hypocrisy and corruption are universal and are central to this production. In one of the show’s most chilling moments, Angelo forces himself upon the terrified, unwilling nun. At this moment, in which you could hear a pin drop in the 900 seat theatre, Khalilulina gives a heart wrenching performance as Isabella is torn between her repulsion, her virginal oath, and her duty to save her brother.
In an era where the leader of the free world boasts of sexually assaulting women, the timeless nature of male exploitation and the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is painfully clear.
For the first half of the show, the ensemble move, pack-like, in unison. It’s a dynamic method of scene transition reminiscent of the magic trick of misdirection. The pack might run one way, joined by the actors of one scene, and before you realise it, another scene has formed with new actors in position. This whirling of human bodies propels the pace forward, turning this five act play into an almost episodic style event.
This promisingly tight pace does lose momentum mid-way – perhaps the fault of not having an intermission. The climactic finale drags out over thirty minutes, minimising the power of what is supposed to be a satisfying moment of justice.
Russian speech shakes up the experience of seeing Shakespeare. The need to read the subtitles, for the most-part, keeps the audience engaged, as they are unable to passively tune out as they might for other plays. Additionally, being able to both listen to and read the dialogue allows you to receive an elevated appreciation of the rhythm and imagery of the language.
With the troubling US president-elect about to assume power, there couldn’t be a more important time for this production, in which the disenfranchised are vindicated, and those that exploit them are punished.