BWW Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE, Barbican Centre
The final installment of the Royal Shakespeare Company's season in London sees Artistic Director Gregory Doran's Measure for Measure. The choice of play is momentous, as it's historically the Bard's only active denunciation of men's unfair treatment of women. Doran sets the piece in a turn-of-the-Century Vienna that's torn between the lasciviousness of its brothels and strict ideals of conservative purity.
Isabella, a novice nun, is asked to intercede on her brother Claudio's behalf with Angelo, who's ruling the city in the Duke's absence and has sentenced him to death. During the appeal, Angelo is struck by Isabella's charm and puts forward his proposition: he will spare her brother in exchange for her virginity. She refuses and threatens to expose his viciousness, but he warns her that nobody will dare question his spotless reputation and she won't be believed. A number of other plot-lines sit next to this exceptionally resonant dynamic, all revolving around the relationship between justice, morality, and impulse.
An impressive production that relies heavily on its visuals and chemistry exchanges, it is, however, a bit dispersive principally at the start, almost as if the space were too big for its scope. Energy takes a while to build, but the material comes together with overwhelming finesse when Doran succeeds in delivering the controlled explosions in the text. There also seem to be small but puzzling tonality shifts, with the director's intentionally diverting his intentions slightly with slapstick scenes that don't truly belong in the bigger picture. In all this, Sandy Grierson and Lucy Phelps are incredible as Angelo and Isabella.
Their synergy is superb: her oration skills are paired with his sleaziness, and his power play is more reliant on what he represents rather than his physical presence. Even though Grierson decisively commands the stage, there's a sense of vulnerability to his bearing, especially when he stands next to her glorious intensity as Isabella. The crucial scene that sees his proposal is particularly arresting: Doran orchestrates their trajectories with precise purpose, bringing them together and removing them in a disturbing dance led by outstanding body language.
RSC regular Antony Byrne is the Duke. The actor embodies authority as he washes his hands of cleaning up Vienna from sin and disguises himself as a friar before carrying out his sentences. Another highlight of the show is surely Joseph Arkley as a flamboyantly swaggering Lucio. His rigorous comedic timing is matched by the details in his movements, pointing towards a well-rounded performance from the very start. The company manages to keep Measure For Measure highly relevant, but the comedy in this problem play feels a tad too exasperated.
Isabella and her fellow female characters are women defined by their quality of being tools in the hands of their counterparts. It's men who impregnate and leave them, and it's men who decide who they should marry or couple with. Our main character is uncompromising in her willingness to preserve her honour and wishes, even in the face of being an accessory to her brother's death, and Doran adds a minuscule easy-to-miss reaction to the Duke's final proposal that sums up her frustration in being used as a bargain chip.
The cherry on top of a production whose objective is slightly out of focus is Simon Spencer's lighting design. Spotlights flood the stage with expressionist shadows, moving the action through different spaces identified with specific patterns of light. Characters lurk in the darker corners of Stephen Brimson Lewis stage, spying on the others or waiting for the right moment to pounce. As a whole, there's no doubt it's a compelling production, but there seems to be minimal imbalances in its tone and intentions that have an impact on its ultimate outcome.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks