The third play released from last year’s final season by the Royal Shakespeare Company (at least until the stage gets back to normal) is, fittingly, one that looks at repression, strict new laws and a maverick leader who doesn’t follow the normal rules – timely, eh? This is Measure For Measure in a production by RSC supremo Greg Doran and set in turn of the 20th century Vienna. It is and remains a difficult play to pin down but the contemporary resonances remain inescapable.
This production shares many of the same actors as both The Taming Of The Shrew and As You Like It so there is a real ensemble feel to the piece. It starts with a Viennese waltz reminiscent of Strauss but here by Paul Englishby. It takes place in front of the gorgeously mirrored set of Stephen Brimson Lewis and immediately gives us a sense of time and place. But it is a strange choice as the next moment characters are commenting on the licentious and bawdy behaviour in the city when all we have seen is elegance, gracefulness and a, by then, socially acceptable form of interaction. There really needs to be some visual clues to the complaints being raised before the first scene proper gets going. After that we are on firmer ground with the grim Angelo being made deputy for the fickle Duke and given free rein to clean up the town. He meets his nemesis in novitiate Isabella who unintentionally tests his powers of restraint and he is found wanting.
This central battle of wills is played out by Lucy Phelps and Sandy Grierson, both of whom are excellent. Their confrontation scenes clearly reference the horrors of the Weinstein debacle and the unbridled manipulation which took place; the shock of the audience is palpable. Grierson, in particular, totally captures the repression and inner turmoil of his character and plays the role with a dour Caledonian air which could not be further removed from his Touchstone in As You Like It. Phelps demonstrates the same inner strength as Rosalind but unlike her, Isabella cannot ultimately break out of the trap and still finds herself manipulated by the men in the play. Her look of aghast horror at the end when she realises that she has avoided the frying pan but will be consumed by the fire is a very strong image on which to finish.
But the play is about more than just these two characters; a spectrum of Viennese life is presented from the highest to the lowest level. The reigning Duke is a very tricky character to get right; he seems to be entirely guided by whim but his desire to step back is short lived. Indeed, this production makes it clear that he finds himself unable to relinquish his power as he manipulates the other characters. Antony Byrne makes a good fist of a difficult role and seems to be cornering the market in Dukes (he also plays both Dukes in As You Like It). Claire Price makes a far more interesting than usual character out of Escalus avoiding the trap of making him (or in this case her) into a stony-faced bureaucrat.
Shakespeare conspicuously fails to develop most of the low life characters to any degree – they are used to make a point in a particular scene and then dropped which is a pity for the actors involved. Michael Patrick, for instance, has some very funny moments in the arrest scene as Constable Elbow (aka Dogberry Mark 2) but then fades into the background, ditto Tom Dawze as a trouserless, drunken Froth. Graeme Brooks provides some of the best comic moments doubling as brothel madame Mistress Overdone and farting death row prisoner Barnadine; we could have done with more. David Ajao’s pimp Pompey is in danger of becoming stereotyped, but his performance is a crowd pleaser. Bridging the worlds of the high and low is Lucio. While he has the air and clothing of the elite, he has the outlook of many of the more so-called commoners. This is nicely resolved in a strong performance by a dandified Joseph Arkley who perfectly captures the louche manners of the character and gets one of the best laughs of the performance with a simple bit of business with a pocket handkerchief. His is a much stronger performance than that in The Taming Of The Shrew.
I can’t say I’ve ever seen a totally successful production of Measure For Measure but think that’s more to do with the script than anything else. Nobody but nobody recognises the Duke, Angelo basically goes unpunished and what is anybody supposed to make of the ludicrous subplot involving Mariana in her moated grange? Surely nobody can be really that desperate that that they would forgive and forget such appalling behaviour at the hands of an utter creep? It just doesn’t measure up (sorry!)