Thursday 18 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Measure for Measure at the Lyceum, or, Failing to Solve a Problem Play

Unlike Twelfth Night I've only seen Measure for Measure once before, and I don't remember it working terribly effectively. This production arrives trailing large numbers of positive reviews from a 2015 run at the Barbican. The supertitled text convinced me that it is a play capable of having a strong impact, unfortunately the production largely failed to achieve this.

As with Shake this is another minimalist staging. The set consists of five large red boxes – three at the back and one each at the sides. The textual reference to our being in Vienna has not been removed, but as so often in modern productions in Shakespeare the actual setting gives an insufficient sense of place. The use of the boxes to shrink the stage, most of the time, is, like other aspects we'll come on to, presumably intended to emphasise the trapped situation of the various protagonists. Unfortunately, there were too many obvious avenues of escape, and this was further undermined by the decision to send the ensemble wandering randomly about the whole stage on several occasions for unclear reasons.

Earlier on the movement is more distinctive. The ensemble functions as a kind of blob, shuffling collectively around the stage spitting out the personnel for particular scenes while the blob looks on.  Like the setting I assumed this was meant to emphasise surveillance and entrapment, the trouble is that neither the character of these people nor the exact nature of the world they inhabit is ever established sufficiently to explain why they should be watching all this, and, indeed, why they largely never intervene. The problem is similar with the decision to have the disguised Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) on stage as a watcher almost throughout – on several occasions the ensemble stops him from intervening. Beyond the fact that they have to because the text requires it, there is the same lack of clarity as to why they are doing so and why he permits it. Declan Donnellan's direction also misses another trick here – keeping the Duke onstage offers all sorts of opportunities for setting up a whole narrative leading to his sudden proposal to Isabella in the final scene, but this is only half-heartedly explored. Finally, on the movement side, there is an ineffective attempt when the blob first spits out the Duke to comment on relations between ruler and ruled.

Costuming also poses issues – Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) and Escalius (Iurii Rumiantcev) are dressed in modern suits, and their police are in similarly modern uniforms. The disguised duke and Isabella appeared to my eye to be in religious garb of an older age. Possibly this may reflect the actual situation in modern Russia (other critics seem convinced the show is commenting on that world) – but if that's the case the production needed to be much clearer that that is where we are supposed to be.

As with setting and ensemble the characterisation of the key protagonists is not strong enough. This is partly a consequence of delivery. There's obviously the difficulty for an English speaker of the foreign language, but allowing for that, I felt this production, like many other English language Shakespeares I've seen in recent times, suffered from a tendency of performers either to shout, or to lack variation of pacing and volume in their delivery. Without these things one gets pushed out rather than drawn in. There was one really magical moment, midway through, when the Duke spoke very quietly to Isabella (Anna Khalilulina). The language barrier fell away, and the sense of the Shakespearean pacing came through – it stood out, because it happened insufficiently elsewhere. Overall, the performances are solid but rarely mesmerising. Arsentyev's Duke is by far the strongest, Alexander Feklistov's Lucio also brings across the text effectively.

Finally, on the production side, there are I'm afraid familiar instances of performers being given silly things to do, and unconvincing textual interpretations. The most problematic of the former is the sudden transformation of Claudio (Kiryl Dytsevich) into a half naked double bass accompanist for a company circle dance while the Duke bellows the Mariana subplot at us. For the latter we have Claudio's attempted rape of his sister – I presume Donnellan had a textual justification for this – looking again at the scene myself I couldn't find one.

All of this contributes to the fundamental problem. Despite the powerful issues at work in this play it pretty much failed to grip me emotionally. Instead it felt disjointed, at times gimmicky, and despite the efforts of the cast to implicate the audience (this determination to make non-Globe Shakespeare audiences into groundlings is also getting a bit tired) the effect on me was the opposite – I felt complicit neither in this attempted surveillance world, nor in the trial scene. The absence, wearily familiar at International Festival theatre, of an interval is a further factor here. Even with cuts the show runs to 1hr 50mins, and as with Shake, it often drags without compensating intensity.

This is another missable show in what has so far been an indifferent year for International Festival drama. That said, I've yet to see the Festival's flagship production, The Glass Menagerie. Hopefully that will turn the tide, though the fact fliers are being offered for it at nearly every other Festival show I've attended is curious.

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