Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 29 August 2019
We might think that the sex-for-favours and the #MeToo scandal is a modern phenomenon. But Shakespeare had exposed the depraved trade-off more than 400 years ago in Measure for Measure, his darkly comic play about lust, power and corruption, which the Royal Shakespeare Company has now revisited.
The RSC’s new production has opened at Stratford-on-Avon, ahead of a national tour and a London residency, to a well-deserved standing ovation for a story that is as old as time – temptation, sin and the subjugation of women.
You can see why this rarely performed piece is referred to as a problem play. What are audiences to make of it? It has always been considered a comedy and, while Gregory Doran’s timely and riveting adaptation is filled with laugh-out-loud humour, there is also a bleaker side to it that makes it very much a play for today.
Doran’s Measure for Measure is set in a bohemian Vienna of the 1900s where brothels and prostitutes openly ply their trade much to the disgust of the ruling, but ineffective, Duke. Unable to confront the problems head-on the Duke pretends to flee the city, leaving it in the hands of his deputy, the dour, stony-faced judge, Angelo, and urges him to carry out sweeping reforms to rid the area of its sex trade and louche reputation.
He couldn’t have given the job to a better man. It’s a dream part for Scots actor, Sandy Grierson, who brings a grim countenance and enough sleaze to the role to make your flesh creep. Grierson is terrific as a diabolical, depraved monster who hides behind a mask of respectability.
In this battle against good and evil the once supposedly upstanding Angelo fights for the body of saintly novice nun, Isabella, using every underhand tactic at his disposal.
This audience gasped in shock when the normally expressionless Angelo relished the pain of a barbed, metal cilice cutting into his bloodied thigh in self-flagellation, and they were revolted by him groping an appalled and terrified Isabella. And the bombshell climax leaves a clear signal that this Measure for Measure is weighed more towards social injustice than outright comedy.
On first sight Angelo seems overawed by the position he’s put in by Antony Byrne’s seemingly impotent Duke of Vienna. He stands in front of him, hunched, controlled and impassive but itching to get started with the clean-up. Little does he know that the Duke disguises himself as a monk to keep an eye on his deputy’s zealotry and he’s shocked by what he sees.
Angelo’s first act is to arrest a young man, Isabella’s brother, Claudio, for getting his girlfriend pregnant outside of marriage, and he condemns him to death.
Claudio begs his best friend, Lucio (Joseph Arkley splendid and outrageous as a wonderfully rotten and misogynist dandy), to go to Isabella before she finally takes her vows, and ask her to plead his case.
But Angelo will only rescind the execution order if the chaste Isabella will submit to him.
The civil servant, who until now has lived a life of self-imposed hardship and self-sacrifice, has a reputation for being a cold fish.
So he can hardly believe it himself that he has been entranced by this young, outspoken novitiate before him.
Grierson is hugely compelling as a man torn apart and tortured by his own emotions and feelings.
His Jesuit and ultra-Conservative, puritanical, soul fights a losing the battle against the demons inside him that lust for Isabella’s body. He’s prepared to rape a nun to satisfy his longings.
Lucy Phelps creates a powerful female protagonist at the heart of an appalling moral dilemma.
The young nun is faced with seeing her own brother die rather than give up her chastity and she is pressured on all sides to accept Angelo’s offer.
Her fight to save her brother and her virginity dominates this black tale. “To who should I complain?” she cries after the revolting Angelo has molested her in his office. “If I tell this who will believe me?” Sentiments that have echoed through both Hollywood and the West End.
The dark plot is peppered with comedy. I didn’t expect to see a fart joke or a gag with a severed head, but they’re just some of the highlights to alleviate the gloom.
There are excellent cameos from Michael Patrick as a comedy cop, Tom Dawze as an epic drunk, Davis Ajao as a pimp and whoremaster, and, especially Graeme Brookes as the belching, farting condemned prisoner, Barnadine.
But ultimately the stage belongs to Grierson and Phelps who are nothing short of scintillating.
Measure for Measure runs in rep at the RSC until August 29 before touring to The Lowry, Salford (Sept 25-Oct 5); The Marlowe, Canterbury (Jan 29-Feb 8); Theatre Royal Plymouth (Feb 12-22); Theatre Royal Nottingham (Feb 26-Mar 7); Theatre Royal Newcastle (Mar 11-21); Grand Theatre, Blackpool (Mar 25-Ap 4).
The production also has a residency at London’s Barbican from November 12 – January 16 and it will be screened live to cinemas, nationally, on July 31.
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