Last Updated on November 17, 2019 by Fiona Maclean
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is food for thought.
Measure For Measure is the third production in the RSC’s 2019 winter season at the Barbican theatre. One of Shakespeare’s comedies, it is a difficult play, known as one of Shakespeare’s three ‘problem plays’ – the other two being Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well. Considered a problem because of its juxtapositioning of deep moral questions alongside more comedic scenes, the script does rather jump between ethical dilemmas, questions of faith and justice, the position of women in society and very camp and often very amusing antics.
I felt emotionally confused at points, in one scene being asked to consider whether it is ever justified to send a woman to save her brother’s life by giving sexual favours – consensual rape in effect – while in the next laughing while watching the antics of the actors playing the roles of the bawdy members of Viennese society being rounded up by inept police. It was akin to listening to The Moral Maze interspersed with a stand-up comedian. But this is a comment on the script itself rather than the direction.
This production is set in Belle Epoque Vienna. Sexuality and hypocrisy go hand in hand which creates not only much of the humour but also sets the scene for far darker themes. When Claudio is sentenced to death for ‘fornication’ – his betrothed is pregnant – his sister, Isabella – a novice nun – pleads for his life. The Duke of Vienna has left the city in charge of his deputy Angelo, an overzealously, repressed man who is determined to stamp out any immoral behaviour in the society. His own desires are split off and he commands the moral high ground of purity until he encounters Isabella. Then his desire overwhelms him and, unmasked, he reveals another side of himself both to the audience and to himself. At first, he wrestles with his desire but then becomes malevolent. At this point in the play, the #MeToo movement hoves into view. Isabella turns to the audience and says ‘To whom should I complain? If I tell this who would believe me?’ I wondered about what Shakespeare’s audience would have made of this and why it has taken so many centuries for women to be believed.
The ending of the play felt too neat for contemporary audiences – the powerful Duke commanding Angelo’s jilted fiancée to marry him when I would have liked her to send him packing. I found the Duke’s proposal to Isabella uncomfortable and suggestive of the power of the male benefactor to persuade a young woman to relinquish her faith and become his wife. The ambiguity with which this production ended, cleverly left the question hanging.
While Shakespeare may have pre-empted the #MeToo movement by four centuries, he also pre-empts Freudian Viennese society by three hundred years give or take with much to be read in the text about sexual repression, projection and denial. Perhaps the moral questions he raises about sexuality and the state’s right to police women’s bodies and society’s sexual behaviour was as relevant to 1600’s England as it is to us today.
The performances of a strong cast were excellent. Sandy Grierson as Angelo degenerated from repressed to creepy and began to remind me of Uriah Heep. Anthony Byrne as the Duke of Vienna, on the other hand, evolved from man on the verge of a nervous breakdown to saviour of his city. One of the strongest performances was from Lucy Phelps who was well cast as the wan, novice nun who had within her a feisty resistance to corruption of the body and spirit and who inhabited her role in a very plausible way. She was not the only one wiping away a tear at the end. David Ajao as Pompey was another excellent casting decision. Last seen at the National in The Barbershop Chronicles, he has an electric stage presence and is a great comedian. Amanda Harris impressed as Provost, becoming increasingly compassionate as the play progressed. One of the most memorable performances came from Joseph Arkley as Lucio. He played the gentleman in an engagingly camp manner, never less than over the top, an incarnation of the louche and bawdy life Angelo was clamping down on all around him. Graeme Brookes was marvellous both as the cross-dressing Mistress Overdone and as Barnadine, a terrifying prisoner who resisted beheading as much as being released from prison.
RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran introduced song and dance into the production which brought light relief at points. A choreographed jail scene seemed on the point of turning into a full-blown musical, but the director reined things in before the inmates had a chance to belt out Jailhouse Rock. Special mention must go to designer and lighting designers, Stephen Brimson Lewis and Simon Spencer. The stage was simply set and lit in shades of grey. A set of mirrored doors that swivelled and turned, reflected the audience and the actors, creating looming and misshapen bodies like those one sees in those mirrors that distort body shape. This was very effective. The back wall of the stage was used to change scene by projecting full-length images such as a railway station, an orchard, and cloisters.
The RSC is committed to diversity and to assembling a company that reflects the nation. This season there is a 50/50 gender-balanced ensemble with actors representing the ethnic, geographical and the cultural diversity of the UK. This was certainly evident on stage. Underrepresented artists are also included in the ensemble. It is certainly the first time I have seen an actor using a wheelchair and I look forward to this inclusive approach to casting becoming more widespread.
Measure For Measure is on at the Barbican Theatre until 16th January 2020.
RSC box office: 01789 331111
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Looking for somewhere to eat before the show? We recommend The Jugged Hare on Chiswell Street.