Measure for Measure, The Globe, 24 April 2012
The Duke of Vienna sat on a chair and stared blankly at the Globe audience, while behind him the city was being trashed.
Boxes full of plastic bottles, various forms of litter and unwanted books were emptied onto the stage. In the midst of the chaos, characters we would meet later in the play performed slow deliberate versions of themselves.
Juliet and Claudio danced close together, Mariana stood on a table showering herself with confetti, while Lucio, with a jerrycan of petrol, prepared to commit arson.
That this Russian production from Vakhtangov Theatre was an adaptation became clear when the scene containing the Duke’s transfer of power to Angelo did not show us Angelo.
The roles of the Duke and his deputy were both performed by Sergey Epishev, who changed into a grey suit and donned glasses when portraying the newly appointed scourge of Vienna’s wrongdoers.
The subjects of his crackdown were a very attractive Mistress Overdone (Anna Antonova), who looked more like a supermodel than a bawd, a funny Lucio (Oleg Lopukhov) and Pompey (Evgeny Kosirev, who appeared to be Russia’s answer to James Corden).
Claudio (Vladimir Beldiyan) was carried off to prison, followed by the devoted Juliet (Maria Berdinskikh), heavy with a child almost overwhelming her slight frame. Lucio gave Claudio a sip of his beer, while Juliet, her face a picture of empty sadness, offered him a cigarette.
After seeing the Duke in his disguise as a monk, we then met a young woman at a convent.
The wide-eyed and freshly innocent Isabella (Evgeniya Kregzhde) exuded a youthful vulnerability that made Lucio’s news about her brother’s impending execution a particularly severe blow.
The comic interlude featuring the interrogation of Froth and Pompey provided some earthy laughs, particularly when the Justice hearing their case flicked his judicial wig so hard that it flew off his head.
Angelo sat unimpressed as Isabella began to plead for her brother. Her gentleness made her reluctant to force her demands on Angelo, which was dramatised by having Lucio blow her like a leaf back towards Angelo when she shied away from him.
But this encouragement had an unintended consequence.
One particularly powerful blast propelled Isabella off the ground so that she jumped into Angelo’s arms. The dour deputy held her awkwardly rather than willingly. He could not cope with this unexpected directness.
Angelo threw Isabella to the ground and it was perhaps only her hugging him again that resulted in the concession of a second meeting the next day.
It soon became apparent that Angelo had been changed by the encounter. After Isabella’s departure, he looked aghast. Realising his attraction to her, he opened his mouth wide in shock as discordant sounds blasted from the stage speakers. Angelo kept his distorted features facing the audience as he exited upstage.
After briefly changing into the disguised Duke to speak with Juliet, Sergey emerged again as Angelo. A tango played and Isabella appeared in a tight dress. They danced and flirted in time to the music. But once in his grasp, Isabella slapped him and walked off.
Once Angelo’s waking dream had ended, he had to prepare for his actual encounter with the bewitchingly innocent novice nun.
Angelo arranged six tables decorated with pot plants into a long line with a chair at each end, putting as great a distance as possible between himself and Isabella. Thus was temptation to be avoided.
His nerves made him drink to excess and in his confusion he wiped his mouth with an ink blotter.
Isabella was seated at one end of the ridiculously long table and Angelo sat at the other. But it was not long before he had drawn up a chair right next to her.
She ended up on the ground, clinging to Angelo’s legs to beg for her brother’s life, which elicited Angelo’s indecent proposal to free Claudio in return for sex with her.
Isabella’s refusal and counter threat to expose him, infuriated Angelo. He chased her round the stage, overturning all but one of the tables. Seizing and depositing her on the last upright table, Angelo angrily insisted on her insignificance while squeezing her head between his hands as if trying to crush it. She resigned herself to her brother’s fate.
The ever gentle Claudio’s constant devotion to Juliet was demonstrated when the action moved back to the prison. The couple entered holding each other close, with Juliet standing on Claudio’s toes so that they moved slowly as a single, intimate unit.
The Duke hid behind the stage left Globe pillar to observe Isabella and her brother. They knelt on the ground as she explained Angelo’s offer.
Claudio’s shock demand that she agree to sleep with Angelo caused her to groan in despair and slap his face.
Acting out the dilemma she faced, Isabella walked an imaginary tightrope, her arms swaying to balance her. The Duke stepped in to explain his plan.
A humorous interlude followed in which Lucio insisted to the disguised Duke that he was an expert on his character. The seductive Mistress Overdone, taking the Duke’s disguise at face value, taunted him with her body.
Mariana was let in on the plan to snare Angelo. At first she laughed in disbelief at the bed trick scheme, but her laughter quickly assumed an air of triumph as she realised it could work.
Pompey had some fun training to be an executioner and practising with an axe, but the arrival of a messenger, creeping at snail’s pace with the letter ordering Claudio’s execution, introduced a sense of urgency.
The Duke intervened to delay Claudio’s death, but after the intended replacement, Barnadine, popped out of the trap door obviously unfit to be executed, the head of a pirate was sent to Angelo instead.
Isabella was told that Claudio had died, which caused her to roll on the floor shouting in anger. In her despair, she saw Claudio before her and tried to chase after him, but he was too swift and escaped.
The severed head of the pirate was delivered to Angelo who looked on it in fear and disgust, afraid that his maltreatment of Isabella might be discovered.
Those familiar with the play had by this point worked out that the doubling of the Duke and Angelo would prove problematic, given that both characters were shortly due to appear on stage together. And while it is possible for one actor to alternate between characters, the result is usually disappointing.
This was where the production displayed its radical nature. The end of the final act with its reunions, surprises and dénouements was entirely reworked.
A brief scene showed us Mariana pleading with Isabella to help her obtain mercy for Angelo.
Pairs of characters then emerged dancing close together to exemplify the harmony resulting from the success of the Duke’s plan. Claudio and Juliet, Angelo and Mariana, Mistress Overdone and her companion tripped their way to the play’s happy ending.
All that remained was the Duke’s proposal of marriage to Isabella.
The Duke arranged the six tables in a row, just as Angelo had done. He offered Isabella the intimacy of marriage, much as Angelo had tried to extort sex.
Isabella refused his hand, at which point the Duke became enraged and overturned all but one of the tables. He seized Isabella, thrust her on the table, crushing her head in an exact replay of Angelo’s movements. She was left crying and distraught, curled in a loose knot as Lucio and Pompey returned to strew the stage with rubbish and detritus.
Besides the enjoyment of listening to the crisp tones of the Russian language, this production provided an interesting twist on the story, placing Isabella at its centre as the double victim of its two doubled characters, the Duke and Angelo.