The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive we file reviews of several London productions of Measure For Measure together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare or just browse.
Lyttelton Theatre Spring 2006
This production by the group Complicite played briefly at the National Theatre last summer and now returns after a foreign tour. It is a mixed bag, with ultimately more good things about it than bad, but not by a very wide margin.
Among the weaknesses are some stylistic overlays that at best add little and at worst detract. It doesn't particularly hurt to do the play in modern dress or to have some scenes played on TV screens. A grab-bag mix of performance styles does get in the way, some scenes played in near-Brechtian mode (everyone facing front and reciting), others in high melodramatic style, with ranting, raving and gnashing of teeth.
A lot of totally gratuitous and irrelevant sight gags do produce laughs, but they're laughs that have little to do with the play. And, as pleasant as the sight is, the play doesn't really want a bare-breasted moment for the nun-to-be Isabella.
On the other hand, intelligent cutting and some overlapping of scenes keep the play moving through just over two hours without an interval, when the RSC would have taken at least an hour more.
The production is at its best when at its quietest and least gimmicky. The scene in which Isabella tells her condemned brother what the cost of his freedom will be, and then he shocks her by begging her to do it, is powerful because the actors - Naomi Frederick and Ben Meyjes - just play the honest emotions.
Similarly, the moment at the end when she must overcome her accumulated outrage to beg for Angelo's life is powerful because the play stands still for a beat to see if she'll do it.
Naomi Frederick is a strong and passionate Isabella, and not for the first time one doubts whether the Duke's last-moment proposal will be accepted. Angus Wright's Angelo is a buttoned-down afraid-of-sex technocrat whose passions run roughshod over him once they get out - in another life he might have become an ax murderer. Company director Simon McBurney doubles as the Duke without conveying any special sense of the character.
Almeida Theatre Spring 2010
Measure For Measure is one of what scholars call Shakespeare's Problem Plays, the problem being that we don't know what to do with them.
The characters are all morally ambiguous, making it difficult to sympathise with anyone; the plot repeatedly turns on unlikely and questionable devices; the ending leaves too many questions unanswered; and Shakespeare's signature mix of low comedy and high drama clashes particularly gratingly.
The problem, therefore, belongs to directors and actors. Many Shakespeare plays play themselves - if you just say the words and don't bump into the furniture, something at least adequate will result. But with Measure For Measure, interpretative decisions must be made and adhered to.
And it is much to the credit of director Michael Attenborough and his cast that, if they haven't triumphed over all the play's difficulties, they have made bold and imaginative decisions that go far toward making it work.
A condensed version of a particularly convoluted plot: a Duke who has not been enforcing the laws feigns a foreign trip and appoints a hanging judge as his deputy. One of the new ruler's first acts is to condemn a man for fornication, but when the offender's nun-to-be sister pleads for him, a rush of lust leads the deputy to offer to trade the brother's life for the sister's virtue. But the Duke, disguised as a monk, has been hovering about and watching, and he has counterplots of his own.
Each of the central characters poses problems, and each of the actors has found fresh ways of addressing them. Rory Kinnear introduces the deputy Angelo as a junior clerk somewhat startled to find himself advanced to high office. His bemused, bumbling, even comic quality endears him to us, and his sudden desire for Isabella plays less like hypocrisy than as one more in a string of out-of-his-depth shocks.
With her baby face, startlingly slim body and figure-hiding gown, Anna Maxwell Martin sometimes looks like an eleven-year-old girl, and she invests Isabella not only with a touching unworldliness but with a child's black-and-white morality, so that she also comes across as out of her depth, rather than hard-edged or prudish.
In some ways Ben Miles has the greatest difficulty making both sense and moral acceptability out of the Duke who toys Godlike with the fates and emotions of others. He addresses the question of the Duke's motives by bypassing it, playing him as a man without a master plan, making it up as he goes along and therefore a little more forgivable when he missteps.
As I said, these decisions don't solve all the play's problems - for example, director Attenborough side-steps the ambiguities of the final moments by leaving them unresolved, the characters not quite sure whether a happy ending has happened or not - but they smooth out some of the rough edges and soften the characters, helping the play flow past its trouble points.
Those who know the play will find much to admire and respect in the directorial and acting choices, while those new to it will have little difficulty being drawn into the story and characters.
As is usually the case, modern dress neither adds nor detracts much, except for the anomaly of Isabella being dressed more like a nineteenth-century postulant than a contemporary nun.
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Autumn 2018
Scientists say there is no such thing as a failed experiment – at worst it tells us what doesn't work. Josie Rourke's gender-bending adaptation of Measure For Measure tells us what doesn't work.
At its core, Shakespeare's play is about a civil servant who attempts to use his power to force a woman to have sex with him. You can see the very contemporary resonances, and the inspiration for director Rourke's attempt to explore the play from a twenty-first century perspective.
It's just that her method doesn't really illuminate Shakespeare much, or use Shakespeare to illuminate our world much.
Rourke's approach is two-pronged. First, she offers a stripped-down race through Shakespeare's text, omitting everything but the central sexual-harassment plot, in order to focus our attention on it.
Then, after the interval, she replays the action in a modern setting (all flashing lights, cellphones and viral texting), and with the two central roles switched so that Isabella is now the predatory power figure and Angelo her virginal prey.
The first act works modestly; the second almost not at all.
The condensed version of Shakespeare loses much of the complex characterisations and moral ambiguities, but it does tell the central story with a baldness that makes evident Isabella's isolation in a world that assumes male power and entitlement.
As Isabella Hayley Atwell effectively guides us to the adaptation's point of view by frequently responding to plot turns with a wry half-smile as if to say 'All right. That's the way the world works. No surprises there.'
The unfortunate impression of the second act is that Josie Rourke got the overall inspiration of the modern setting and role reversal but never worked out how to make it work. So whole chunks of plot and characterisation just don't make much sense.
In the original Isabella is a postulant nun, explaining both her moral position and her valued virginity. But in the modern version Jack Lowden's Angelo doesn't seem to be a priest or even seminary student – if anything, he comes across as a vaguely hippie social worker.
So his claim to sexual purity carries no inherent believability – even Claudio thinks it's a joke – and Lowden can't make the character ring true.
The male equivalent of Mariana also makes no sense as a character, and slipping him into Isabella's bed in Angelo's place feels a little too much like rape to be acceptable. And making Nicholas Burns' Duke gay, with his own designs on Angelo, has a whiff of desperation about it.
(In one of the few bits of subplot left here it is amusing how Matt Bardock's Lucio, a pimp in the first act, translates so smoothly into a slimy lawyer in the second.)
Once again Hayley Atwell provides the act's one touch of insight and emotional depth by making the lustful Isabella find more of an emotional and moral struggle in the same self-justifying lines Angelo spoke in the first act.
But the fact that director Rourke can't find a way to finish the modern version believably and just gives up midway through the final scene is further evidence that what seemed like a good idea at the time just didn't work out.
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
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
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
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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