Theatre review: Measure For Measure

There's a chilling moment towards the end of Declan Donnellan's memorable production of Measure For Measure, for his own Cheek By Jowl company and the Pushkin Theatre of Moscow.

Measure for Measure Picture: Johan Persson

Star rating: ****

Venue: Lyceum Theatre

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Alexander Arsentyev’s superbly charismatic and complex Duke returns to the city he has left in the temporary care of his deputy Angelo, and the people cheer. He raises his arms, and the cheers grow louder; he lowers them, and the people fall silent. Then he raises and lowers them a few more times to demonstrate his control, in a terrifying glimpse of absolute power.

“Of government the properties to unfold…” runs the famously undramatic first line of the Duke’s opening speech, and in those six words, Shakespeare sums up the whole intention of this darkest of comedies, which is to offer an insight into the disturbing mix of high concepts and principles, low cunning and theatrical chicanery, that seem to him to make up the art of successful government.

And it’s this aspect of the play that Donnellan’s production highlights most vividly, as he works with a superb company of 13 Russian actors to explore their own searing insight into the kind of autocratic power that is both seductive and profoundly manipulative. Donnellan’s approach is to compress the story in to a swift 110-minute arc of action and movement that never pauses until it reaches that final long scene of “justice” restored; the choreography is superb, the effect intensely kinetic and lyrical, the style more indicative than naturalistic.

Yet if this is not a production for those who want further deep insights into the precise psychological state of Isabel, or of pinched and bureaucratic Angelo, deranged by lust, it offers an outline of the play that is often breathtaking in its force and clarity; and delivered with a precise and brutal performing energy magnificently reflected in Nick Ormerod’s powerful, fast-moving blood-red set, the colour of sex and of death.

Until 20 August. Today 8pm.