MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019
Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that. What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality. Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness. It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.
In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out. Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral. Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency. Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal. If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother. Which was will Isabella jump? It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss. There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure. The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?
More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke. The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women. Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.
As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance. I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right. Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.
James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant. Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms. Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.
Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon! I could do with more of this!
The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).
More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today. Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.