Measure for Measure
Barbican Theatre, 8th January 2020
I like Measure for Measure. I find the weird cocktail of morality play and satirical “comedy” fascinating. No one comes out of it well, not even the ostensibly virtuous Isabella who goes into bat to save brother Claudio from death, but is prepared to sign off on a pretty dodgy deal to further this aim. The stench of corruption infects even the pure. This makes it a very “modern” play I guess, which is why it is getting multiple airings, with much to say, in the right hands, about the complexities of power and desire. Not quite at the top of Will’s oeuvre but certainly in the top ten. Which, for your edification, I set out below.
- Julius Caesar
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Richard III
- Henry VI, Part I, II, III
- Richard II
- Measure for Measure
What no Lear? Or Dream? Or Romeo and Juliet? Or Tempest? Or Twelfth Night? And Coriolanus included? And, are you mad mate, also Pericles? Well yes I like the latter’s daft fantasy travelogue, even those bits which stem from the unsubtle hand of George Wilkins, and Coriolanus strikes me as the very model of classical tragic hero, not prone to bouts of soul sharing pace Lear, Macbeth or your boy Hamlet. And the list shows pretty clearly that I like history plays. Power, politics, virtue, honour, social as well as individual psychology, the ruler and the ruled, corruption, narcissism, jealousy. These are the things that interest me. The dark side of human nature that Will explored forensically and which make many of these plays relevant to our, or any other, time. Don’t worry though. I am not a weirdo. Much Ado About Nothing is in there.
Of course much depends on the productions I have seen and I think I have been blessed in recent years in the history and “Roman” play departments in particular. Maybe one day I will see a Macbeth or Lear that truly persuades. That’s the thing with Shakespeare. Ultimately malleable, such that creatives and cast can usually find something, language, message, narrative, character, spectacle, in which to delight and illuminate.
As here. Gregory Doran is probably the most reliable Shakespearean director of our time, useful when you are the big cheese at the RSC. Maybe not the most spectacular of interpreters but always clear in purpose and execution. No gimmickry with this, which I think is his first stab at MFM, unless you count setting the play in fin de siecle Vienna, a point in the city’s history when virtue and corruption, intellect and expedience, reached there apogee, and, arguably laid the ground for what followed, good and bad, very bad, in much of the Western world through the first half of the C20. It is almost as if big Will, with his fictional late C16 fictional Vienna could see what the real city would become three centuries later. (I gather this connection has been made in previous productions).
Otherwise GD, and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis using the set structure common to the season’s productions of As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, with added monochrome projections as well as 1900s period costume, don’t muck about with text or cast. Paul Englishby’s score echoes with waltz. Escalus, in the hands of Claire Price, is re-gendered, as is the Provost (very effectively by Amanda Harris), but then again Mistress Overdone is, campily, handed to Graeme Brookes. But there is no wholesale gender politics reinterpretation here. And the text is, I think, complete so that said Overdone, Pompey (David Ajao versed with Afro-Caribbean sonority), Elbow (Michael Patrick) and the major, (Joseph Arkley especially as supercilious Lucio), and minor fops and fop-esses, all get their due, though the wordplay comedy requires our close attention.
RSC veteran Antony Byrne unsurprisingly nails the Duke/Friar, a man convinced of his own righteousness as he is blind to the flaws in his exercise of power, James Cooney is a quietly desperate Claudio and Lucy Phelps excels as the virtuous novice, at least until the scheme to uncover Angelo’s hypocrisy is set in motion, Isabella. But the whole is held in place by a marvellous performance by Sandy Grierson as said self-scourging Angelo, who really gets to the heart of said Angelo’s conflicted nature. Or is he, as here, not really quite as conflicted as he makes out, revelling in the opportunity to root out Vienna’s impurity whilst lusting after the eloquent nun. The ghost of an approving Freud was probably sitting in the gods.
Mr Grierson stood out in Jude Christian patchy OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric, Pity at the Royal Court and in As You Like It (of which more to come) in this RSC season but, unfortunately, I have missed him in the other RSC roles he has played in recent years, and on various stages in his native Scotland. I suggest you ensure you see him next time he treads any accessible boards.
The trick in MFM, assuming no re-interpretation, is having the two main characters in Isabella and Angelo both repelled by sex, but also, somehow, fascinated by the idea of desire, which drives the pivotal argument scenes between them. They are both, literally in joint prayer, holier than thou, at least until Angelo cracks. GD’s clear headed direction, and Lucy Phelps’s and Sandy Grierson’s delivery of the text, expertly unfolds the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. And there is no hiding from the fact that Angelo, and, through his casual “proposal” at the end, the Duke, even maybe against his preference, are choosing to be rapists.
Lots of detail, well thought through, ambiguity and double binds not brushed away. This is not a problem play. The problem, as ever, is us humans. If you want a contemporary feel-gooder with a happy ending go see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.