Yesterday I went to see Measure for Measure by Cheek By Jowl at Oxford Playhouse. It was the second time I’d seen the production, having caught the live screening from the Barbican last Wednesday. Of both, undoubtedly the live performance in Oxford was the better. Of course there are some things which live screening just can’t capture, that said what a great opportunity for worldwide audiences to tune in, for free no less (RSC/NT take note), to a phenomenal production online.
This was the first production I’d seen by Cheek by Jowl, and although I was mocked from several quarters for seeing a production of that very English bloke Shakespeare in Russian, I’m glad I went. It may seem counter intuitive but there was something about performing Shakespeare in another language, one I can recognise only a few words in, which seemed to make it more accessible. Yes, the surtitles came in handy, but – placing me in the position of those for whom Shakespeare’s language is decidedly foreign and inaccessible – it forced me to take a step back, to immerse myself in the beauty and power of words. The haunting way Angelo’s name was uttered by Isabella will remain with me whenever I return to read the play. While it is almost impossible to focus on the written subtitles and the action on stage all at once – something that was made easier in the live screening, perhaps because it was more akin to watching a foreign language film – I made a concerted effort at the Playhouse to enjoy the closely crafted and subtle intricacies of performance, character dynamics, and the staging.
I’d brushed up on the play in advance of Wednesday’s live screening, perhaps embarrassingly for someone researching Shakespeare I’d never read, or indeed seen, the play. One by-product of my slacking was that approaching the production (on both occasions) the play was fresh in my mind, I’d got the basic story outline and character conflicts nailed out thus giving me more freedom to sit back and enjoy the production.
I was struck by the power of the production, the biting language powerfully portrayed by actors whose every facial expression seemed at once carefully crafted and rehearsed, and instantaneous and natural responses to the words they were engaging with.
Aside from the wonderful communal atmosphere seeing a live production gives, and the plethora of multi-lingual voices buzzing before the production got underway in Oxford captured the pre-show excitement which smaller more intimate venues are so much better at. It’s one of the reasons I prefer the Swan theatre to the RST, not just being closer to the action physically but there’s something about smaller spaces that (and it’s probably simply psychological) that makes me feel involved in the play. Cheek by Jowl frequently played with this, as Angelo gestured to the audience, Isabella cried with pleading eyes hoping someone from the audience would believe her, and the lack of applause from the audience at the entrance of Angelo at the Duke’s return offered a stark contrast to the recorded loud applause and cheers of the citizens.
An audience can add a great deal to a play too, and often action can depend on audience reaction. I don’t just mean the applause at the final bows (though there was plenty of that last night, even more than at the Barbican I hasten to add) but whether an audience laughs, cries, or reacts at all can completely alter the dimensions of a play. Take the opening scenes of Measure for Measure, watching it live I was struck by the way many instances were played comically (offering a sharp change for the later brutal scenes), with the fear of the Duke and his frustration at his followers offering space for giggles and smiles from the audience, and many were offered. The dynamic seemed to me different to the screening I remembered from the previous week, for to laugh at any point in that I would have felt guilty and inappropriate – then I was conscious only of the horror which was to come – but yesterday I enjoyed those moments which made me smile, and it allowed me to see characters in a different light. Perhaps the most comic moment was the hosing down of Pompey following his entrance to jail.
Lodovico remained irritating though at times amusing. But it was the comic side of the Duke, which I hadn’t anticipated, which struck me. He seemed more human for it, while the attempts of humour offered by Angelo were poor attempts to cloak his true self. That said, in his moment of ‘falling in love’ before he reveals the condition to Isabella he seemed frail and weak, a shell of the authority I’d come to expect of him. Andrei Kuzichev showed for a split second of a scene that Angelo too, merciless and greedy though he is, also is helpless particularly at the hands of emotions which are outside of his control.
The play had particular resonance I think not simply because of the power invested in every word by each actor, but because of the upcoming election. The corrupt dictatorial figure of Angelo whose double standards spark his downfall when the curtain covering his deceit is lifted in the literal unveiling of his (soon-to-be) wife, and the re-entrance of the Duke in the final red-carpet adorned stage was strikingly like not just contemporary Russian politics, but the politics here in England.
The incessant campaigning, the vulgar speeches against rivals, and the hiding behind borrowed policies later to be returned to one’s true form – all saw representation on the stage. Simply put, it felt relevant because it was.
The sense of continual watching, an almost Big Brother dimension which clearly haunted the Duke – as the mirror recognition staging emphasised – was captured in the continual stage activity. A hallmark, I gather, of Cheek by Jowl productions. It certainly was a powerful device in this production and served to indicate who had the power. The peoples view silent danced through the action or those more powerful and illustrious graced with lines. That said, perhaps the most striking scenes were those with little dialogue. The cries of pain of Isabella, the only punctuating sound to shatter the silence as she learns of her brother’s death. The silent look of surprise, anger, and then horror as her brother encourages her yielding to save his life.
The music which rang in my ears as I cycled home from the Playhouse was integral to the production, and came to the fore in the bed-trick scene. As the actors danced, faces glowing around the central action, and Claudio plucked methodically and with the occasional violent twang at a double bass, the act took place, with its actors dancing in and out of place.
The music returned for the final unhappy scene as couples were united for the first time on stage. While Claudio, wife, and child, and to some extent Angelo and wife, appeared happy (despite the awkward dancing with Angelo’s arm floating limp – emphasising his stiff authorial character which had not fully been broken, as the woman not the man here took control in contract to the rest of the play), Isabella was left alone. The offered hand of the Duke hardly suggestive of a happily ever after ending, in fact his rejected proposal and hand raised a few laughs last night. Nervous laughter perhaps but it did help solidify for me how little he really knows Isabella, as does his dismissal of her brother’s death and famous “measure for measure” moment. The director of action has found an anomaly. Isabella is the actress who refuses to bow to his, or any others, will. He appears, in his firmness of what she will do, to be a shadow of the man who was first to force her against her will, Angelo.
“This will last out a night in Russia..” made me laugh when I first read the play last week, given that I was to watch a Russian production of the play, but in fact the play clocks in at just under two hours, which for Shakespeare is short. But it’s certainly crammed chock-a-block. I sense that no matter how many times I see this production it will always offer something new, something refreshing. And, it was that, that relevance, power, and excitement – the kind of toe tingling butterfly sensation – mixed with poignancy and horror, that provided a sharp, and helpful reminder that this is why I’m researching Shakespeare, because a stonking production like this reveals how powerful, relevant, and exciting Shakespeare’s plays can and are today.