SPOILER ALERT: There are some spoilers in this review but, you know, it’s a 400 year old play so…
Measure for Measure has for the last century been characterised as a problem play. This can take on a variety of meanings but the most striking one perhaps is that it’s characterised as a comedy but it’s not funny. It was the last comedy he wrote, coming just after Hamlet and only a year before King Lear. It has always felt to me like a writer pushing at the limits of the genre. Knowing that the ending is inevitable (resolution, restoration of the status quo, marriages), Shakespeare seems to do everything he possibly can to problematise the implications of this ending.
It’s a shocking play the first time you see it and has the atmosphere of a pot-boiler thriller a lot of the time. Briefly, the Duke pretends to leave Vienna and puts Angelo in charge but actually remains in the city in disguise to check up on what Angelo will do. Angelo sentences a man to death for fornication and, when that man’s sister pleads for her brother’s life, propositions her in exchange for pardoning her brother. There are various elaborate substitutions and then the Duke comes back, nobody is killed, Angelo is punished and the Duke decides that he’s going to marry the condemned man’s sister, Isabella, who is a nun by the way.
Scenes are frequently indoors and the majority of these are lengthy two handers based around negotiations of sex and power and morality. In this, set against a backdrop of seedy European city district, there’s the feel of a Simon Stephens play to Cheek by Jowl’s production updated to the modern Russian capital.
There’s really only one good part but Andrei Kuzichev manages to give imbue Angelo with a perfect kind of banal evil. He looks like a petty bureaucrat who has risen up through the ranks and nobody would ever suspect. In the moment when he tells Isabella that it’s her word against his, there’s something terribly chilling about innocuous he is. It’s not just that he has power, it’s not he is far too boring for anyone to suspect. I was reminded of Malcolm Tucker’s brilliant line in In the Loop: “Y’know, I’ve come across a lot of psychos, but none as fucking boring as you.”
Even while we are seeing the terrible things that Angelo is willing to do when he thinks he can get away with it, there’s a security in the knowledge that, just as we are watching the whole thing so is the Duke. It becomes less about whether Angelo is going to have his just desserts than how the Duke is going to pull it off. For all Angelo’s moral hypocrisy, there’s something even creepier about the Duke’s megalomania. Everything that happens is part of a grand experiment for him and he is oblivious to the pain he causes.
It’s surprising therefore that, going against the grain of many recent productions, Alexander Asentyev’s Duke is portrayed as such a sympathetic character. His proposal to Isabella is in stark contrast to his statesmanlike condemnation of Angelo. He steps away from his official role to declare his love for her like a sheepish schoolboy. This feels disingenuous, a suggestion that his proposal is an offer rather than the command we realistically know it to be. Ultimately, the man with real power gets away with everything. If the production has something to say about Russia today, perhaps that is it.