BWW Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
"Measure still for measure": justice is still a tricky concept. Gregory Doran's insightful realisation of Shakespeare's notorious "problem play" highlights Measure for Measure's enduring, perhaps even increasing, relevance.
There's much to alienate contemporary theatregoers: female protagonist, Isabella, wishes the convent she has joined was stricter, and fornication is a serious and genuinely abhorred crime. Yet when Vienna's duke temporarily absents himself from rule, his seemingly ascetic deputy, Angelo - whose "integrity stands without blemish" - reveals astonishing levels of hypocrisy.
Events play out much like various contemporary news stories. Morality seems swept aside as those with little power strive to influence for good and the preservation of Isabella's quiet puritanism becomes synonymous with that of her fundamental human rights; her brother's life lies in her hands, yet beyond her grasp.
Doran's decision to situate the play in Freud's Vienna is fitting. Dignity and status are embodied in finely cut suits, and Angelo casts aspersions on Isabella's sanity rather than admit his own desire. Sandy Grierson's portrayal of Angelo is nuanced and thoughtful throughout, but utterly chilling when he asks "Who will believe thee, Isabel?".
Shakespeare's play highlights the harsh realities of Elizabethan morality and the appalling conditions regarded as comparatively desirable. Doran's setting shows how much and yet how little has changed over the course of 300 years. The audience's collectively bated breath shows the dilemma still posed by Angelo's question.
Antony Byrne gives a hugely powerful performance as the Duke of Dubious Motive. In contrast, Lucy Phelps's portrayal of heartfelt and radical kindness is beautiful, and James Cooney consistently moving as Claudio.
Measure for Measure perhaps stretches the term "comedie" too far; its bleak subject matter holds up a dark-tinted mirror indeed. Doran has found tremendous rise and fall in the text, however; Joseph Arkley's Lucio is hilarious, yet always believable and fitting comfortably into the overall production.
Otherwise, this production is as beautifully constructed as might be expected of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stephen Brimson Lewis's design is in keeping with the chosen setting, evoking the period and its culture with a light, impressionistic hand. Simon Spencer's lighting is varied, but subtle. Paul Englishby's music - wonderfully performed - and Steven Atkinson's soundscape enrich the production and enhance the atmosphere throughout.
All things considered, this is a rare opportunity to see such an effective staging of this difficult text. Although its subject matter remains challenging and the play's conclusion is far from reassuring, this "problem play" is in some ways so forward-thinking, it is surely part of the solution.
Click here for details of the RSC's 2019-20 tour, including Measure for Measure
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks