Review: Measure for Measure, Barbican Silk Street Theatre

Not only am I not familiar with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (much to my shame), but I also cannot speak fluent Russian, which could have made my evening at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre rather a trial. Certainly, it was going to be a test of the clarity of Cheek By Jowl’s storytelling as to whether I’d be confused or compelled by the production.

Thankfully it was the latter. Declan Donnellan’s production of this classic is bold, gripping and beautiful (and, thankfully, subtitled). From the minimalist staging in the Barbican’s vast space, with five huge red cubes that can move and revolve, to the clever ensemble work that inventively and fluidly depicts changes in time and space, the production really is a masterclass in storytelling for the stage.

Telling a story of abused power, bureaucracy and seduction, the play teases out the drama of each of Shakespeare’s scenes to get you leaning forward in your seat. This is a production that needs no pomp or distraction, with Donnellan focusing in on evoking detailed, passionate and bold performances from his cast. In particular, Alexander Arsentyve stands out as the Duke, as does Andrei Kuzichev as Angelo opposite the incredibly watchable Anna Khalilulina as Isabella. The appalling choice Isabella has to make is gut-wrenching, with the scene of Angelo’s attempted seduction of her executed flawlessly. Scene after scene packs this same punch, with the feeling of being on a constant knife’s edge.

Donellan’s production is as humorous as it is grave, bringing in physical comedy as much as relying on Shakespeare’s wordplay and irony. Indeed, one does not have to read each and every subtitle to enjoy the nuance of the production, as the world is so compelling and clear. The minimalism lends itself to this, with any set pieces used having a striking effect, such as the wonderful tableaux created when the cubes are rotated to reveal beautifully views of the characters in their various predicaments.

This is a play that boasts a host of accomplishments, from innovative design and staging with its abstract settings, to pitch-perfect performances with chaos perfectly balanced against calm, and for taking stark look at the nature of the government of justice. Indeed, Cheek By Jowls’s Measure for Measure puts to shame most English language productions of Shakespeare (or otherwise) playing in London at the moment, offering a unique, intelligent, visually striking and gripping night at the theatre.

Measure for Measure is playing at the Barbican Silk Street Theatre until 25 April. For more information, see the Barbican website. Photo by Johan Persson.