I saw *Measure For Measure* at BAM on 10/16/18. It was maybe the most illuminating, exciting Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen.
It was my first show at BAM this season, and having been to the Met to see *Aida* a few days before, I felt like the fall cultural season had really gotten started. It was a co-production by the Pushkin Theatre in Moscow and Cheek By Jowl, a British company. The actors were all Russian, or at least they were speaking in Russian. I sometimes had to choose between watching the actors or reading the titles (I decided this on a case-by-base basis). The actors were talking fast and these titles were flying by, and Shakespeare is a lot to take in to begin with. I was lucky that I had just seen this play a couple years ago, so I knew the story, and it was no hardship to bypass the language and just watch the actors. I got the feeling that a good portion of the audience was comprised of Russian speakers because they appeared to be laughing at inflections and line readings. That was cute.
The actors were all very good but the genius of the production was due to the English director Declan Donnellan. The first five minutes were silent, with the actors all moving around the stage in a pack, sometimes with a single actor on one side of the stage facing down the others. It set the tone without having any literal meaning, which is a bold way to start a show. Most of the show featured the actors all standing in one corner in a pack, and the scene changes often involved the pack moving. In one stunning transition, there were two actors sitting at a table - - the pack scurried along the front of the stage and when they walked past the table there were two OTHER actors sitting there. This was a startling transformation, and so effortless.
They made an interesting choice in casting the villain. A villain is typically either a toad, or smooth and slick, or some combination of those elements. This villain was short, skinny, nondescript, sort of a nebbish. Which made his acts of villainy all the more chilling. He made me think of Hannah Arendt’s description of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann - - she said he was an example of “the banality of evil.” Again, a bold choice, and it paid off.
Anna Vardevanian had the central role of Isabella, a nun.
She gave such a strong, brave performance, she held nothing back. She gave me something I hadn’t seen before: a few times she looked up while she was crying and her eyes glittered like you wouldn’t believe. Maybe it was because I was sitting so close, maybe it was the lighting, maybe it was just the way her eyes are, but it was stunning. I read in her bio that she’s done a lot of Russian TV - - I might see if any of it is streaming, I really loved her.
The other standout performance was by Petr Rykov as her brother, Claudio. The apex of the play is the prison scene between the two of them. He’s a gorgeous, hunky guy - - I read in his bio that he started his career as a model, so I wasn’t expecting him to be such a strong actor. He was totally the equal of Vardevanian in this scene, they were evenly matched. And then, at the end of the scene, someone brought on a string bass and he started to play it.
He played it really well! And as he continued playing, they piped in prerecorded music, a Shostakovich-esque waltz, and he continued playing all through the next scene. It was a stellar combination of Shakespeare, inventive staging, the perfect music, and fully exploiting the abilities of your performers. I definitely want to see more from this director.
[Photos by Johan Persson, courtesy of the Bam Press Office]