Performed entirely in Russian, Cheek by Jowl’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Oxford Playhouse shines an unremitting and unflattering light on the silencing of sexual violence victims in modern-day Russia. The production, sticking closely to Shakespeare’s text (in translation), highlights the narratives of women whose bodies are traded as commodities and emphasizes that no sexual relationship can be fulfilling without affirmative consent. Cheek by Jowl critically examines the patriarchal values dominant both in 1604, when the play was first performed, and today.
The actors speak in Russian as English subtitles are projected above the stage. This language gap becomes a rich zone of encounter rather than a space for confusion as actors utilize choreographed movement sequences and expressive body gestures. Between lines, actors jog around the stage, do mirror exercises, and play instruments. Rather than distracting from action, this gives the piece constant forward motion. Against a stark black set with three massive red cubes, the cast performs sharply delineated gender roles in suits and crisp dresses.
The play opens with the duke (Alexander Arsentyev) conceding power to Angelo (Andrei Kuzichev) for a temporary period. Angelo, once in power, immediately begins imposing strict, archaic laws; one of these laws condemns sex outside of marriage. But while he exacts harsh punishments, Angelo himself decides to pursue sex with Isabella, a young nun-in-training. Isabella does not consent to sleeping with him, but Angelo, hypocritical and abusive of his power, attempts to coerce her into sex in exchange for helping her brother. Eventually, Isabella speaks out against Angelo, Angelo is punished, and some semblance of justice is served (but it is a justice that raises troubling questions about whose voices still go unheard).
Without holding the virginal Isabella on a pedestal, this production empowers the range of sexual choices female characters make. Isabella, who chooses to abstain from sex not because of external pressures but because of her sense of ownership over her body, remains strong in her decision to reject advances from Angelo and, later, the duke. Mistress Overdone (Elmira Mirel), the un-subtly named prostitute, is a nuanced character never shamed for her sexual choices. Then Juliet (Anastasia Lebedeva), a pregnant, engaged woman, emphasizes her choice to affirmatively consent to sex.
The duke at one point asks if Juliet loves the man (Claudio) who “wronged her.” Juliet responds that, yes, as she loves the woman that wronged him. Refusing to accept the imposed narrative that she only could have had sex if a man took advantage of her, she presents her sexual relationship as a mutual one. Claudio is her partner, not her master. This idea is revolutionary in the patriarchal world of the play. Confident in her choices, and proud to be pregnant and wear her sexuality publicly, Juliet embodies the power of affirmative consent. This production highlights this by inserting Juliet into scenes, like the full-ensemble opening movement sequence and an intense Russian dance scene, in which she does not
have lines. Standing out from the rest of the ensemble, the actor walks with confidence in her baby bump.
The characters in this production perform for the audience but also for each other. For the majority of the play, the entire ensemble, featuring people of various genders, is onstage. Watching from the corners, the ever-present ensemble makes the main actors accountable for their actions. Characters can never free of the watchful eyes of the community. Moving in unison during a provocative mirror sequence, then engaging as individuals in their respective scenes, the ensemble encroaches on each seemingly private moment. Everyone is a witness.
In the final scene, half of the ensemble leaves the stage. Only white middle-aged men occupy the space. Walking down a red carpet, with cameras flashing and the recorded noises of a crowd playing over the speakers, the duke and Angelo begin to hold a press conference to discuss issues of the state.
Then suddenly from the audience of the Oxford Playhouse rings a female voice. Isabella, uninvited to the conference but speaking out anyway, shouts that they cannot continue until she has been given justice. She stands in front of a microphone on the stage and tries to tell her story. While she speaks, the recorded sounds of the crowd nearly drown her out, and the men onstage barely pay attention to her. Except to silence her, of course.
Angelo declares that Isabella is crazy, which, of course, she is not. Then using the disturbingly common excuse that he’s a nice guy with a clean record, Angelo argues that his denying narrative should be believed over that of this loud female. Taking the microphone out of Isabella’s hands, Angelo tries to usher her out of the spotlight.
Then another woman raises her voice from the audience. Mariana (Elmira Mirel), shrouded in a black veil to retain her anonymity, also lodges a complaint against Angelo’s sexual misconduct. Angelo, without missing a beat, reverts to another silencing tactic: he calls her a slut. Realizing Mariana’s identity through the veil, Angelo tries to write her off, too, and resume his business. Sweating in his grey suit, Angelo attempts to navigate his way around true allegations in order to maintain the favor of the other males in the space.
These women bravely raise their voices, articulate their complaints about sexual misconduct in front of a panel of men in suits, and demand justice. But no one listens. That is, until the duke swoops in to speak out on their behalf. Showing his support for their stories, and acknowledging that their complaints are valid, the duke condemns the violator Angelo. It is great that the women’s narratives are acknowledged. But the fact that these survivor’s voices can only be heard when projected through this man’s patriarchal boombox is sobering. When the duke speaks, the crowd becomes quiet. The other men turn towards him and listen. This intentional choice speaks the fact that, in the world of this play, at least, women need a man to validate their accounts of sexual misconduct. The female characters are not joyous, therefore, when the duke speaks for them. They nod but do not celebrate their won battle; they do not celebrate that the duke has co-opted their stories.
In the final scene, the duke tells Isabella to marry him. He doesn’t ask. She doesn’t respond. In fact, Isabella does not speak for the rest of the play. In Shakespeare’s time, this silence could have been read as assumed consent. Since the duke has supported her, she should automatically say yes to marrying him, right?
But the absence of a no is, of course, not a yes. Cheek by Jowl picks up on this. So instead of ending with a happy marriage between Isabella and the duke, this production ends with a push-and-pull dance between them. The vibe is disheartening. Slow Russian music plays as Isabella avoids eye contact with him.
Jealously watching Juliet and Claudio (the one couple whose relationship is firmly grounded in mutual consent) dance a loving minuet, Isabella widens the physical distance between herself and the duke. He tries to grab her nun’s habit and pulls her in to dance; she clings to this symbol of her religion and retreats from him. The lights fade as the duke slowly closes in on Isabella.
So the ending is bleak. Angelo has been punished (his punishment is, by the way, to be forced to marry a woman he does not want to be with, a violation of his right to consent), but Isabella has not truly been given justice. After fighting an uphill battle to have her right to make her own sexual choices acknowledged, her advocate, the duke, tries to get her to make an exception on his behalf. This inconsistent justice is not, therefore, justice.
Measure for Measure is, at its core, a play about sexual coercion. That meant something different to Shakespeare than it does to us now. But rather than using the temporal gap between then and now to excuse Shakespeare or overlook the sexual violence central to the plot of this interesting play, Cheek by Jowl looks this problem in the face and examines it through a feminist framework. Instead of writing this off as a problematic play, Cheek by Jowl embraces the challenge that representing survivors in it presents. Measure for Measure, although written in 1604, rings with relevance to conversations on college campuses today. A tangled story with no perfectly moral heroines or heroes, the one unequivocal truth it presents is the necessity of affirmative consent.
Photo credits: Johann Persson