Imagine a notoriously corrupt country where the autocrat hands over to his deputy for a period before suddenly returning to resume his place at the top. No prizes at the front of the class for spotting the parallels between Putin's Moscow and the seedy Vienna of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.
This Russian production now playing at Shakespeare's Globe in the first week of the 37-play Globe to Globe season avoids easy political parallels despite its modern dress. Its style is dyed-in-the-wool expressionist, based in the Russian tradition of endless rehearsal and physical improvisation, which occasionally veers far away from the playwright's intentions, leaving the text as mere raw material for the director's bright ideas. With this qualification, I found it an absorbing reading of a play which I've only seen once before, full of excellent insights and featuring some terrific acting from a cast who look as though they've been on the open-air Globe stage all their lives.
In Yuri Butusov's production from the Vakhtangov, one of Moscow's leading mainstream theatres, the parts of the Duke of Vienna and of his deputy Angelo are played by a single actor, Sergei Yepishev. This decision inevitably removes the perfunctory face-to-face encounter between them in the opening scene but also cuts out the final confrontation, in which Angelo's attempt to seduce Isabella by falsely promising to reprieve her brother Claudio is forgiven. In fact most of Act Five goes missing -- I suspect because of time constraints, as the Globe has insisted that all productions run a maximum of two and a half hours. But the doubling of roles allows the production to generate a rich level of new meaning.
Yepishev opens the play as the lanky Duke, sitting casually downstage in a white suit and open shirt while the rest of the cast throws a chaotic stream of rubbish around the stage. This is not freedom ('svoboda') but licence ('volya'). After the sudden handover, he changes gear to become the icily calm Angelo, in a grey pinstriped suit and tie, stern and bespectacled, a complete contrast to the languid laissez-faire ruler. The rubbish is swept off the stage by minions bearing giant brooms in what any Russian audience would see as a 'chistka' -- a word that can mean not only a 'clean-up' but a purge. The action is oscillating between those two Russian extremes -- repression and anarchy. As he insists on the death sentence for Claudio for breaking the law and getting his fiancee Juliet pregnant, Angelo is the image of the incorruptible 'Chekist', imposing order out of chaos, like Putin following Yeltsin. But it's not long before his sudden passion for Isabella, awoken as she pleads for her brother's life, turns him into a gauche, maudlin fool, more Mr Bean than Stalin or Dzerzhinsky. By the end of the play, as the returning Duke, stripped of his monk's habit, chases Isabella round the stage and pins her down on a table in exactly the same manner as Angelo has done in Act Two, the twin characters have virtually merged so that they are barely distinguishable. One senses that it will make little difference to the doomed Isabella which of the ruling couple she ends up marrying. This Duke is not a wise Prospero figure, but a man who shares the weaknesses of his disgraced deputy. So there's not much of a happy ending on offer, but there is a radical shift in meaning.
To me this seems to be a clever and thoroughly plausible reinterpreation of the play. There are other excellent moments, such the one where the clown Pompey, hired as a part-time executioner by his jailer to chop off Claudio's head, tries his hand with the axe and makes chips of wood fly off the block. Or the one where Angelo fussily takes a pair of scissors from his pocket to trim some potted plants. The director's bold use of mime in between the scenes, while possibly a bit overdone, enables him to patch up some of the inadequacies in Shakespeare's text. He manages to turn Claudio and Juliet into a much more substantial couple than the lines suggest, and he also builds up the brother-sister relationship between Claudio and Isabella. Yevgeniya Kregzhde as Isabella, while lacking the vocal power to project as well as some of the other actors to the back of the Globe gallery, makes up for it with a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a girl struggling to keep hold of some kind of moral compass in a swamp of corruption. I am sure she must be a natural Nina in The Seagull. There are also excellent performances from Oleg Lopukhov as Lucio, Yevgeny Kosyrev as Pompey, and the long-legged Anna Antonova as the slinky brothel-keeper Mistress Overdone.
This staging relies a bit too heavily on loud music for my taste, and the power of Shakespeare's language only comes through intermittently. But it is a production well suited to the Globe stage, performed by a cast who communicate with the audience with total confidence.