This ‘Measure for Measure’ has never seemed more timely
You indulge in hoary cliché when you remark of William Shakespeare that, in the much-quoted words of Ben Jonson, “He was not of an age but for all time.’’
But those words ring truer than ever when it comes to the transfixing, eerily current production of “Measure for Measure’’ at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through Sunday, in Russian with English surtitles. Bostonians really should consider “Measure for Measure’’ the other must-see event this weekend, along with those baseball games being televised from the West Coast.
In this staging by Pushkin Theatre Moscow and the London-based Cheek by Jowl troupe, a play written by Shakespeare around 1604 — in which a high-ranking Viennese official tries to use the power of his office to force a young woman to have sex with him — reverberates as if it were written with today’s #MeToo movement in mind.
While director Declan Donnellan has not resolved all the issues that have long bedeviled a work that is rightly considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,’’ this “Measure for Measure’’ speaks with topical urgency and theatrical ingenuity to matters of sexual misconduct, the lengths men will go to in order to cover up their abuse of power, and the blithe indifference of some authority figures to the truth about those abuses. In the sour aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, a pivotal scene of a lone, wronged woman seeking justice from an uncaring (or worse) patriarchy cannot help but summon memories of Christine Blasey Ford testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In “Measure for Measure,’’ a convent novice, Isabella (Anna Vardevanian, superb), is presented with a chilling proposition by Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev), who is ruling Vienna in the (apparent) absence of the benevolent Duke (Alexander Arsentyev). As part of Angelo’s harsh crackdown on sexual freedom, he has sentenced Isabella’s brother, Claudio (Petr Rykov), to death for engaging in premarital sex with his fiancee. However, Angelo says he will spare Claudio on one condition: That Isabella yield her virginity to him.
When Isabella rebuffs Angelo’s demand, he responds with an attempt to rape her. “Who will believe thee, Isabella?’’ Angelo taunts her, gesturing toward the Cutler Majestic audience. “Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true,’’ he tells her.
This “Measure for Measure’’ was conceived well before the onset of #MeToo, having premiered in Moscow five years ago. Donnellan has said he envisioned his production as an opportunity to examine why certain rulers and some members of the general public are drawn to authoritarianism. That question, too, is insistently timely, and not just in Putin’s Russia.
The fierce hold on your imagination exerted by this “Measure for Measure’’ is only partly explained by its present-day relevance, however. A significant part is attributable to Donnellan’s entrancingly moody, movement-based production. It unfolds on a set, designed by Nick Ormerod (who, with Donnellan, is co-artistic director of Cheek by Jowl), that features five giant, blood-red cubes, beneath the kind of stark lighting fixtures you associate with police interrogations. Also hovering above the stage — too high above, frankly, given the density of Shakespeare’s rich language — are the surtitles.
Donnellan keeps his large cast onstage throughout — when not active participants in a scene, actors function as silent onlookers — and he keeps the cast in constant motion: sometimes crossing or circling the stage, sometimes linking arms in a folk dance, sometimes disappearing behind one of those cubes in a fashion that underscores the game of hide-and-seek with the truth that unfolds in “Measure for Measure.’’ At a couple of points, those cubes are used to create sudden, jolting tableaus that vividly illustrate the stakes of the power plays within “Measure for Measure.’’
The play’s tonal inconsistency remains a flaw, its bursts of comedy coexisting uneasily with the darker material. A “bed trick’’ that is central to one plot thread is as implausible as ever. And that ever-problematic everybody-gets-married denouement of “Measure for Measure’’? Well, director Donnellan has added interpretive shadings that Vardevanian, as Isabella, enacts with great subtlety. But it doesn’t quite solve the problem.
Nevertheless, this “Measure for Measure’’ works far more often, and far more powerfully, than do most productions of this thorny play, while pressing enough contemporary buttons to make you wonder: Was there anything Shakespeare didn’t anticipate?
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Designed by Nick Ormerod. Production by Pushkin Theatre Moscow and Cheek by Jowl. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through Oct. 28. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org