MEASURE FOR MEASURE by Shakespeare,             , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Declan Donnellan, Designer - Nick Ormerod, Lighting - Sergei Skornetsky, Paris, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Image by Johan Persson


“A community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.”

IMG_1019he words of Oscar Wilde hang heavily over the stage of Barbican’s Silk Street theatre as Declan Donnellan’s Russian language Measure for Measure exercises an interrogation into the abuse of power, corruption, greed and lust.

The stage is dark, empty (aside from five large red boxes) and smoke filled. It resembles more of a dingy back ally than the streets of Vienna. From the outset the 13-person company moves in unison, reminiscent of a Greek chorus but also portraying a lack of individual freedom. From this pack emerges the Duke (Alexander Arsentyev) who abdicates his position following what appears to be an existential crisis and in his charge he leaves Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev).

However, Angelo’s professed integrity is soon put the test as his new found position of power compromises him. Angelo resembles a bland accountant rather than an autocratic tyrant, but now holds the power over life and death. He can execute this power with the stroke of a pen. It is Angelo’s belief in the integrity of the law that leads to the unraveling of his own integrity. He finds Claudio (Pter Rykov) guilty of fornication and sentences him to death. This action results in Claudio’s sister Isabella (Anna Khlilulina) begging Angelo to spare his life, which he offers to do in exchange for Isabella’s virginity. Angelo’s sexual advances to Isabella are almost artaudian in their viewing and cause the audience to tangibly recoil

Isabella tells her imprisoned brother of Angelo’s offer – which she refused – and it is here where the duke (who has disguised himself as a friar) hatches a plan to trick Angelo and give Claudio his freedom.

Ultimately Donnellan’s Measure for Measure asks more questions than it gives answers. Those who abuse power seem to go unpunished and the structures that have enabled such abuses of power are never addressed. The Duke does not appear reformed, just rejuvenated by the adoration of the people that he claimed to be tired of. Angelo’s corruption and sexual deviance is greeted with marriage and mercy.

Alexander Arsentyev, Anna Khalilulina. Photographer - Johan Persson

Image by Johan Persson

The avoidance of militaristic tropes such as uniforms is particularly effective in creating a more contemporary look as well as suggesting that the actions of the plot are restricted to one time or place. The obvious comparison would be to Putin’s Russia, indeed the ‘Fornicator” sign that Claudio is forced to wear could easily read “Faggot” in light of the persecution of gay people in Russia. However while this comparison may be apt it could also be limiting. The play speaks to all places where power is being abused

The ending of the play is particularly unsatisfying which is perhaps indicative of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Much like The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice the way in which the play engages with women is troubling. Isabella is perhaps the only character that has virtue yet she ultimately takes part in deception. While her purity remains intact, upon the plays ‘comic’ conclusion she pushed to the fringes of society; marginalised and silenced.