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.
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
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
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
convoluted story clearly and keeps things moving, achieving the rare
accomplishment of bringing an RSC Shakespeare down to (just) under
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.
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