Oxford is truly privileged to be the only UK city (other than London) to be hosting part of Cheek by Jowl's new production of Shakespeare's troublesome Measure for Measure. This is a company that continues to grow in stature and has the right to be considered one of the leading theatre companies in the world. Whether performing in English, French or, in this case, Russian, they set the standard with their immaculate story-telling, elegant stagecraft and forensic attention to detail in both acting and direction. This might sound slightly hyperbolic but I have been watching Cheek by Jowl productions for many years and they always impress.
Director Declan Donnellan's taut new production sets Measure for Measure in a contemporary totalitarian state where surveillance and the threat of violence are woven into the fabric of daily life. Some will seek to find parallels with the current Putin regime in Russia but I think Donnellan's vision is more universal than that.
As ever with a Cheek by Jowl production, it is the precision of the acting that brings the greatest of pleasures. The current ensemble delivers superbly.
Alexander Arsentyev's Duke is a man on the brink, nervous, sweating - his only remedy is to manipulate those around him. This he does expertly; he's a true modern politician - conflicted and unpredictable. He is well matched by the feisty Isabella of Anna Khalilulina. She is so much more than a mere novice. She has passion and fire. But she too is conflicted by the moral dilemmas forced on her through the action - but also by her unexpected reactions to them.
Angelo, in this production, emerges as a damaged, creepy individual, tormented by his desire for intimacy and his inability to achieve it. Andrei Kuzichev relishes his moments to great effect, shocking the audience with his actions in a way that helps make the play feel utterly fresh.
Perhaps the standout performance comes from Alexander Feklistov as Lucio. Often just played as a clown, Feklistov creates a far more rounded interpretation of a man who revels in vice and his own pleasures, and one who never knows quite when to stop. A very impressive re-examination of an oft-neglected character.
The ensemble work brilliantly to control the pacing of the play, making frequent use of clever choreography (and contrasting stillness) to be a constant presence that drives the action forward in unexpected ways. Any director could learn much from the stagecraft of this production.
Having said that, there are a couple of sequences which failed to work for me - but overall it is still an outstandingly clear piece of theatre-making and one that transcends the language barriers. Tickets are still available - but they should not be!