Year of Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Measure for Measure, Vakhtangov Theatre, dir. Yury Butusov, 25 April 2012 at The Globe, London

By Sarah Olive, University of York

Not entirely unexpectedly, marriages were scarce on the ground in this production of Measure for Measure – except for that between expressionism and naturalism. Indeed, the programme notes for Vakhtanhov Theatre describe the company as ‘always following the twin influences of Meyerhold and Stanislavsky, of spectacle and psychological truth’. It was a union that gripped a packed Globe theatre audience, half of it seemingly comprised of Russian speakers (in comparison to the noticeably smaller numbers of Swahili speakers at the matinee of Merry Wives the same day). The demographic was perhaps more striking for those used to the typically older audiences of Shakespeare’s less famous plays in that it included many family groups with children. No squeamishness about the ‘adult themes’ was in evidence. Rather, the young girls near me demonstrated their abilities as frank and mature-minded performance critics, asking their parents at various points in Isabella’s ordeal (as depicted by the Carey Mulligan-esque Evgeniya Kregzhde) ‘Is she laughing or crying’?

The action commenced with loud, seedy-sounding music and the stage being littered with shredded paper and litter, including bottles, cardboard and (more politically suggestively) books – not to mention stylised but nonetheless dissolute Viennese citizens. Both the rubbish and characters were blown about by stormy winds conjured up by the actors and echoed throughout the theatre by the reality of a brutally cold, wet evening (a factor the actors played up, periodically gesturing to the sky and bathing in the rain on the stage’s small thrust extension).

The Duke’s ‘departure’ from the city left in charge a sharp suited and geek-chic bespectacled Angelo – both played by Sergey Epishev – symbolically obsessed with nurturing an innocent-looking collection of potted plants. The benign first impression of his reign was swiftly undercut by his prosecution of ‘vice’, including Claudio’s impregnation, out of wedlock, of his lover Juliet; the antics of Mistress Overdone; and the jovial disorder of Pompey and Froth – throughout the trial of which he sat, statue like, downstage centre. In addition, repeatedly blown virtually (and then, climactically, literally) into the arms of Angelo by Claudio’s friend Lucio, Isabella’s entreaties to Angelo on her brother’s behalf had the effect of unleashing a tide of desire from the acting leader. Towering over the gauche, petite, teenage-like Isabella, he was nevertheless unmanned by her emotional pleas and intermittent body contact. His hands shook uncontrollably, and later he dreamed of sharing an erotically-charged swing dance with her and downed alcohol fiercely in preparation for their next meeting. Apparently disgusted by his urges, he constructed a table almost the length of the stage, so that they could each be seated at opposite ends when she arrives. Yet his resolve soon dissolved into violent pursuit of her across the room, where he delivered his ultimatum (she must have sex with him to free her brother from jail) while pinning a sobbing Isabella to the table.

Isabella visited Claudio, convinced that he will not ask her to sacrifice her chastity to save himself. Throughout the scene, the Duke, disguised as a Friar, watched from behind a pillar. The expressiveness of Isabella’s voice as she pleaded with and was horrified by her brother’s selfishness brought unexpected tears for me. Brother and sister were knelt on the floor in echoes of their childhood, companionate selves when, uncontrollably outraged, Isabella snapped and struck Claudio repeatedly until he collapsed, convulsing. The violence done to her in the previous scene thus became her only weapon, her last resort, in her increasingly desperate defence of her sexual integrity.

At this stage, the Friar-Duke emerged and suggested that Mariana, spurned by Angelo, take Isabella’s place in his bed. Mariana, whose enduring love for Angelo is represented by the miniature forest of plants she carries with her, agrees. The bed trick went unstaged and the production whipped, albeit with continuing flair, through the business of substitute executions and pardons for Claudio and Angelo. Suddenly, ear-splitting party music one again rocked the stage and the Duke, resuming his role, chased Isabella across the stage in an almost exact replica of the choreography of the earlier struggle between Isabella and Angelo. The audience’s hopes for Isabella’s escaping marriage to the Duke were momentarily raised as she served him a resounding slap, in response to his lashing out at her as she mocked his proposal with laughter. However, they were just as quickly dashed and the production ended with Isabella again pinned sobbing to a table, as the set regressed into a chaotic rubbish heap.

As we dodged vast puddles en route to the station, the party I’d gone with, ranging from 18 to 58, agreed that the production had been worth withstanding the bitter weather – perhaps even enhanced by it.


What others are saying about the production:

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


Watch a video recording of this production online for free at THE SPACE:





Listen below to an interview with the director, created by the Globe Education Department:

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Sarah Olive is lecturer in English in Education at the University of York. She also teaches on pedagogy at The Shakespeare Institute. Her research interests include the teaching of Shakespeare and Early Modern drama and Shakespeare's popular cultural afterlives.
  • Erin Sullivan

    What a production! I wasn’t able to attend in person but I watched online via The Space (the recording quality was excellent, and it also included line by line subtitles – I highly recommend it). I found Kregzhde’s performance as Isabella intensely moving – her small stature, oversized overcoat (sleeves halfway down her hands), physical and emotional expressiveness all contributed to an impression of youthful vitality and innocence that is seriously damaged, if not lost, by the end of the play. Along these lines I was surprised by Michael Billington’s suggestion that ‘there seems to be a touch of unholy flirtiness in Isabella’s first appearance, clad in crisp white blouse and long skirt, in Angelo’s office’ – if anything I thought there was the suggestion of Isabella as a young girl, making Angelo’s desire all the more questionable. This was further emphasized for me in the playful interludes (or nostalgic flashbacks?) of Isabella and Claudio running after each around the stage, playing together as brother and sister. But perhaps this childlike quality was not meant to rest specifically with Isabella – Claudio and Juliet’s slow dance / embrace, in which she stands on his feet as he moves back and forth to the music, certainly also reminded me of youthful innocence lost, or indeed spoiled, by the jealousy and corruption of others. 

    Thanks for a stellar review – whet my appetite to watch the production and hope now to teach it later this year.

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