Desperate Measures

I’m not normally one for Bardolatry, but isn’t Measure for Measure really, really good? The two scenes with Isabella and Angelo are – if you’ll permit me to use an exhausted phrase – electrifying, as is the speech in which the Duke instructs Claudio to be ‘absolute for death’ and Claudio’s tortured follow-up ‘Aye, but to die and go we know not where’. Additionally, ‘the old fantastical Duke of dark corners’ might just be the best description of anything ever. What a pleasure, then, to see Cheek by Jowl’s exciting Russian company take on this powerful and challenging play and what a pleasure to see it for free, via an internet stream. Pete Kirwan, who is writing a book about Cheek by Jowl, has already completed three reviews about this production: one on the Moscow show, one at the Barbican, and one on the live stream; you can read them here. I only want to add a few brief comments.

It’s useful, I suppose, to acknowledge the medium. Free streams are great (more please) but they come with their own benefits and drawbacks. The close ups revealed details which might otherwise be hard to catch. In different ways both Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) and the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) benefited here, as they were, for the most part, quiet and reserved. In a remarkable opening, distinguised by almost complete silence, the Duke spent a couple of minutes trying to evade the attentions of a mass of onlookers – the production took the Duke’s line ‘I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes’ literally (or at least, it took the second part of that statement literally). In these instances and at the end, when the Duke made his offer to Isabella (Anna Khalilulina), the camera caught his twitching anxiety. Likewise Angelo’s realization of his desire for Isabella was effectively captured. The downside, of course, is that the camera tells us where to look – one of the dazzling and dizzying pleasures of a Cheek by Jowl production is that there is so much to look at. The camera helps, perhaps, by choosing these moments for us, but it necessarily removes some of the complexity – and the pleasure. It was unfortunate, too, that the close ups on the Duke during his final speech made it hard to see Isabella’s reaction.

Indeed, the relationship between the small, careful, barely perceptible, and the large, elaborate, and shocking, was especially interesting. For example, in one of the most powerful and unsettling scenes, Angelo tried to sexually assault Isabella, beginning by taking off her tights and kissing her foot as she convulsed on the table. But this extraordinary and horrible scene was prefaced, a few minutes earlier, by a simpler action: Angelo took off his jacket and placed it on the back of his chair. RareCheek by Jowl imagely can such a mundane action have seemed so chilling. It was a quietly sinister moment which gave way to something louder and even more troubling. In such ways the production continually distinguished itself. If you ever get the chance to see it, do so. The stream is still available here, until later today (Monday 27 April). I’m looking forward to seeing more Measures this year – at the Globe in the summer and at the Young Vic in the autumn – but the bar has been set very high.

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