THEATRE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
August 18th to 20th
This is Cheek by Jowl’s production with the Russian Theatre Moscow of one of what are referred to a Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, one that is difficult to categorise, being so close to tragedy yet ending happily.
This is an austere production, with a simple set of large red reversed kiosks and at times a desk. There are no words spoken in the first few minutes, as the cast walk between the blocks; then one character separates out, who is soon seen to be the Duke (Alexander Artsentyev), who goes on to give a dominant and very impressive performance. Also isolated from the crowd we have Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev), in essence the villain of the piece. The Duke leaves Vienna for a time, leaving Angelo in charge, but actually observing his rule incognito.
Angelo imposes a fierce puritanical code to clean up the city, and quickly catches in his net the very handsome Claudio (Kiryl Dytsevich) who has got his betrothed pregnant. His desire to marry cuts no ice with Angelo. Claudio’s sister Isabella ( Anna Khalilulina) is planning to become a nun, but is persuaded to plead with Angelo to spare her brother’s life. Angelo begins to find Isabella attractive, and makes her an offer which appals her and shows up his hypocrisy. The plot then thickens….
This is a production of great distinction, guided by the brilliant hand of Declan Donnellan. In the opening silent section we see how the raised or declining hand of the Duke can affect all of his people, how they will cheer or quieten. The same applies again in the final scene. This is a subtle but very effective illustration of the power of an autocratic ruler,
The austerity of this production seems to limit it a little. We do have the comedy of characters such as Lucio and Barnardine, but here they are somewhat subdued.. Without any broad comedy the ending can seem the more contrived, though as in some other of Shakespeare’s plays it is forgiveness and mercy that prevent deep tragedy.
This production, however, really graces this year’s Festival, and is one to be sought out by anyone who enjoys the very best of live theatre.