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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Measure For Measure
RSC at Barbican Theatre   Winter 2019-2020

Measure For Measure is a difficult play. Shakespeare is more than usually ambiguous about characters, morality and tone, and directors and actors have to make a lot of basic decisions just to let it all make sense.

And RSC director Gregory Doran doesn't seem to have guided his cast to a sufficient number of decisions, leaving their characterisations too often undefined or self-contradictory, and the audience insufficiently guided toward how to respond.

The story is complicated and full of moral ambiguities. A Duke goes away, allowing his puritanical deputy Angelo to start enforcing draconian moral laws by sentencing a young man to death for premarital sex. Isabella, the culprit's sister, pleads for mercy, but only succeeds in arousing the deputy's lust.

He offers her brother's life in return for her virginity, which is for the would-be nun quite literally a fate worse than death. But the Duke hasn't actually left at all.

You may be able to see the problems already. Unless very carefully delineated, each of the three main characters runs the danger of being unattractive, and it is not at all obvious what the play's moral position is. To succeed with an audience a production has at the very least to decide who the good guys and bad guys are.

Lucy Phelps makes Isabella a strong woman but too smug and proud in her superior righteousness for her to be fully sympathetic, and when the plot requires Isabella to get involved in some devious means-to-an-end scheming, she can't escape a strong whiff of hypocrisy.

I have seen the Duke played successfully as weakly avoiding the responsibilities of his position and as godlike in his wisdom and manipulation of events. Antony Byrne's Duke seems merely along for the ride, being entertained by all the plot twists, including the ones he generates, with no particular concern for their effect on others.

Surprisingly, it is Angelo, the villain of the piece, who generates the most sympathy here. Sandy Grierson introduces him as literally tightly-buttoned-down, so uncomfortable in his body that he flinches at physical contact with others. When he finds himself lusting after Isabella, the shock is more an identity crisis – Is this the real me? – than a moral one.

The symbolism may be a bit too obvious when Grierson unbuttons his jacket before propositioning Isabella, but the actor does make us feel and at least fleetingly pity the man's confusion and pain.

Director Doran does tell the sometimes convoluted story clearly and keeps things moving, achieving the rare accomplishment of bringing an RSC Shakespeare down to (just) under three hours.

But emblematic of the production's weakness is what happens in the final seconds of the play, where Shakespeare does not make clear how one character reacts to something another says, but some reaction is absolutely necessary. Doran directs a reaction, but it as minimal and close-to-not-there-at-all as it could possibly be.

And, like too much of what preceded it, that's not satisfying.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Measure For Measure - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2019
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