Barbican Theatre, London – until 16 January 2020
Gregory Doran’s RSC production of Measure for Measure is a subtle and absorbing account of a play that gets weirder with every viewing. No wonder it fell out of fashion for centuries. What should we make of a drama in which everyone seems to be torturing one another and themselves, for reasons that are not entirely clear?
The untameable moral ambiguity makes Measure for Measure endlessly fascinating. Despite its supposed difficultly, the cast in Doran’s version provides a balance and energy that makes the play seem, if not obvious, inevitable. Anthony Byrne’s Duke is the lynchpin, apparently on the verge of losing his mind as he lurches out of his palace into the streets of Vienna for an urgent sabbatical. Byrne plays him as a likeable figure whose grip on reality has slipped, leading to a series of increasingly ill-advised decisions.
Sandy Grierson’s Angelo, with the lank, fair locks of a German silent movie villain, communicates puritanical up-tightness and desparate unhappiness with every part of his being. The Duke’s comment that he “never heard the absent duke much detected for women; he was not inclined that way” hangs significantly in the air, perhaps an explanation for both their states of mind. Phelps, as Isabella, is disturbingly driven and, when she eventually understands the carnal bargain Angelo proposes, frozen with horror.
Elsewhere, the cast is impressively strong and the comic characters genuinely funny, from Joseph Arkley as a spiv gentleman Lucio, David Ajao as a Jamaican pimp Pompey, Michael Patrick as a threatening Ulster Elbow. Amanda Harris makes a prison warder tour-de-force from the unpromising part of the Provost, and Claire Price brings multiple conflicting emotions to the Duke’s sidekick, Escalus.
The staging is a success too, with a gorgeous series of back projections from designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, showing how theatre has finally reached the point where it can use digital effects to aid the production, not compete with it.
Measure for Measure remains a play of shadows, prefiguring the Puritan decades to come but offering something much more hard to fathom than a satire. The ending was once played with a hint of Isabella’s disquiet at the Duke’s sudden marriage proposal. Here, Phelps gives a look of complete horror and incomprehension. The matter will clearly never be mentioned again, and it seems unlikely it is even close to what the Duke really wants.