Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 29 August 2019
What a strange and stirring play this is! Set in convent, court and condemned-cell, it is spiked with moral ambiguities and fuelled equally by sexual desire and sexual distaste, as Isabella refuses to yield her chastity for a brother’s life. There’s a Winter’s-Tale resurrection moment, several powerful emotional cliffhangers, questions about corrupt power, necessary disguises and defiances. Dark villainy is given a curious reprieve and purity questioned. Last time the RSC did Measure for Measure was in the Swan, with whips, nipple clamps, spiked leather collars, and Mariana hanging out sullenly in the Moated Grange in a filmy negligée and studded biker belt. I enjoyed it. It had ‘élan. But this production strikes deeper.
Set in Vienna 1900 under Gregory Doran’s thoughtful, clear and gripping direction, this time there is not a fetish in sight, though plenty of stocking-tops and bustiers and no small pleasure – as Angelo cracks down on the brothelkeepers – in seeing Graeme Brookes’ huge-frocked Mistress Overdone swing both her arresting officers around by their chains.
More pleasure indeed when the said Brookes reappears as Barnadine, the belching, farting, degenerate murderer who refuses to be executed because he’s having a kip, and in the end whoops along the walkway to freedom. Pompey the pimp is given full rein by David Ajao, and as for Joseph Arkley poncing around in spats and a malacca cane as Lucio, and interrupting the final judgement, words fail me. There are malapropisms from Constable Elbow and a particularly creepy weirdness in Abhorson the executioner, and it’s all done superbly.
But what Doran frames most brilliantly is the central confusion of morality. The Duke-Friar is the anchor of it (if sometimes an unreliable one, Anthony Byrne showing him both determined and troubled). As for his better behaved henchmen, the director’s decision to cast Claire Price as Escalus and Amanda Harris as a really excellent, watchfully troubled Provost is a gender-switch used with great intelligence.
Here are two grown, completed women are drawn into the play’s conflicted atmosphere of sexual sin: not buying it, aware that Angelo is wrong, quietly maternal towards poor Claudio. As indeed we all were: James Cooney’s delivery of the speech about the terror of death was heart-stopping. Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is a puzzle, but then Angelo always is: his smooth-pated suaveness chiefly makes you reflect that the worst villains are often weak characters.
As for Lucy Phelps’ Isabella, she is simply tremendous and will be memorable for years. She is credible both in her eager devoutness and solid defiance, and in the breathtaking moment of despair when her whole body becomes a terrible Munch scream. The scenes between her and Mariana are womanly, intense and real; that Doran leaves us uncertain that this woman will agree to marry the Duke creates an final moment which most excellently serves the play’s problematic quality. Wonderful.
www.rsc.org.uk to 4th April