The archetypal British playwright had to contend last night with typical British weather, but if standing in the pouring rain watching a play in a language you don’t understand doesn’t sounds like your cup of Earl Grey, think again. Vakhtangov Theatre’s production of a Russian Measure for Measure, the third of the international Globe to Globe festival, was well worth catching a chill for.
The production is, appropriately, expertly measured. Vakhtangov strike an ideal balance between humour and gravitas in a play which has the structure of a good old Shakespearian comedy (you know the score, bed tricks and head tricks, everyone gets hitched in the final act) but the thematic profundity of his best tragedies.
The Moscow-based company claim to follow the twin influences of Meyerhold and Stanislavski, combining spectacle with psychological truth. Certainly Shakespeare’s blurring of genres suit their aesthetic perfectly, allowing Vakhtangov to stage powerful juxtapositions. Passionate individual performances of guilt, loss and distress are set against raucous and dissonant ensemble scenes in surreal layering. Among these dreamlike portraits, Maria Berdinskikh’s Juliet stands out as especially compelling. Heavily pregnant and soon to be widowed, she cowers downstage, clutching at her dress in spasmodic anxiety before being guided away, whilst behind her, Isabella (Evgeniya Kregzhde) and Angelo (Sergey Epishev) dance a raunchy yet faintly ridiculous foxtrot.
Stylised moments such as these also drill large holes through the language barrier. Certain actors create comedy with the kind of sign language you see British tourists attempting on the Costa del Sol: Lucio’s schoolboy gestures of pregnancy and lechery are universally comic. More effective, though, are choreographed scenes such as the opening, in which characters are crystallised in motif gestures; and later, Angelo’s preparation for Isabella’s arrival, in which the slapstick, rom-com humour of pre-date nerves is amplified to absurdist mania.
The latter throws Angelo’s violence into even sharper relief in the ensuing scene; what is effectively the attempted rape of Isabella. Pleading with him to save her brother from execution, the nun-in-training is distraught that he agrees only on the condition of sex. The simple scenery of tables and chairs are flung across the stage as Angelo’s fanatical composure breaks down. Landing upside down, their legs evoke prison bars which speak of Isabella’s entrapment, and her brother Claudio’s unfair incarceration. Kregzhde is hurled down atop the last upright table in the foetal position, provoking audible gasps from the yard. The expansive physicality of Epishev’s gangly frame suddenly bearing down on her tiny body, he focusses many of his gestures towards her head and neck, a powerfully invasive image which is both sexually charged and unnervingly threatening.
The casting is superb, with the petite Kregzhde drowned in an oversized costume and buffeted about the stage. Re-cast in stilettos for the provocative dance number, a side of Isabella is revealed which might not be just a figment of Angelo’s fantasy. As she struts off stage in a business-like black dress, her performance adds complexity to Isabella’s dogmatic chastity. Can a woman charm one man to save another, and still refuse to sleep with him?
Epishev plays both Angelo, the temporary ruler, and the Duke who has left him in charge. Thought-provoking parallels are drawn between the two men, pointing up original approaches to the play’s questions of power and justice. The comparison also gives credence to director Yuri Butusov’s decision to end on the Duke’s proposal to (or propositioning of) Isabella, which is played as a re-run of her scene with Angelo. Shocked into nervous giggles, Kregzhde is silenced with a sharp slap around the face from Epishev. The second time round, in reeling exasperation, she socks him one back. Hundreds of sodden pac-a-macs rustled as the Globe erupted into applause.