Classified as a comedy but pulsing with dark, morally ambiguous themes including corruption, the abuse of power and conflicted sexuality, Measure for Measureis one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”. But influential British director Declan Donnellan considers it “a quite remarkable play” and “a very modern play.”

“I think it’s wonderful. It’s an intensely political play about controlling people through shame, really. And I think it has one of the greatest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote, between Angelo and Isabella,” he says.

Measure for Measure, photo © Johan Persson

In 2013, Donnellan directed a two-hour, modern-dress, Russian-speaking version for his own company Cheek by Jowl in collaboration with Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre, which was hailed as “a shattering portrait of contemporary Russia” by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Designed by his partner and long-time collaborator Nick Ormerod, the stripped-back, punchy production has since toured with great success to the US and the UK, and now plays at this year’s Sydney Festival, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in January.

Donnellan and Ormerod formed Cheek by Jowl in 1981 and quickly made waves in British theatre. Frequent visitors to Russia since the late 1980s, Donnellan was invited...