REVIEW: ‘Measure for Measure’, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC

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William Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ is given the five-star treatment in the RSC’s latest adaptation of this ‘problem play’.

Directed by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran, the play is transported to 1900s Vienna, and in this glittering world we find a striking measure of hypocrisy and corruption in a production that explodes with ‘today’s news’.

When Claudio is condemned to death on the charge of fornication, his sister Isabella must petition corrupt official Angelo for mercy. When Angelo offers to save her brother in return for sex, Isabella doesn’t know where to turn.

Set in 1900s Vienna, we are offered a momentary glimpse into a glitzy, glamourous world, with its ballroom dancers, evening gowns, dinner jackets and chandeliers. Immersed into the superficial beauty of the period and location, this is quickly forgotten against the darkness of what follows – a shadowy world of immorality, corruption and hypocrisy., the only colour to be found on the costumes of prostitutes and characters there for comic relief.

The play was written in the early 1600s, and setting it in 1900s Vienna, playing to a modern Biritsh audience shows that these topics happen everywhere, all the time, a vicious cycle that occurs the world over, in which such corrupt hypocrisy threatens to eclipse truth and justice. 

Simon Spencer’s dramatic lighting design gives the illusion of shadows and silhouettes on the floor, whilst set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis lines the back of the set with mirrors, fitting as the production holds a mirror to our own time, the different angles and multiple reflections leaving the play’s characters with nowhere to hide. Effective design and direction aims to restore truth, justice and light to the smoke and mirrors of a corrupt of hypocritical world.

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, has let things slip in the city, and now debauchery, immorality and corruption reigns. He announces that he will be leaving the city, and passes his authority (and livery collar) to Angelo in his absence. Returning to the city in the guise of a Friar, Lodowick, he objectively tries to put things right, and comes up with a plan to save Claudio’s life, and Isabella’s honour. However, he wrongly allows Isabella to think that Claudio is dead, and when he is revealed to be alive, the Duke lauds himself for having a hand in his survival, and asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage, as though she owes him this, not realising that he has betrayed her trust most vilely. Proposing again at the play’s close, the Duke, seeing himself as her saviour, is blinded to the fact that he too is now taking advantage of Isabella, of her goodness and kindness, and she once more finds herself in a position where a powerful requires her to be answerable to him. In an even higher position of power and authority than Angelo was, the Duke seems to believe that he can get away with this, that the rules do not apply to him. 

Antony Byrne generates a powerful aura as an authoritarian Duke whose authority is waning. A man who can still inspire some loyalty in his long-serving and devoted servants (such as Escalus and The Provost), this is also a man who, in his quest for truth, justice and morality, his intentions seemingly good, he himself is poisoned by the idea that he is above the laws that govern society, which allows him to propose to Isabella without shame, or even understanding.

Novice nun Isabella is sent by Lucio to petition Angelo to grant her brother clemency. It seems that she would be willing to lay down her life to save that of her brother’s. However, Angelo asks her to do what she cannot do – surrender her body to him. When she visits Claudio in prison, though he is visibly moved, he soon asks Isabella to do this for him, to save his life, and Isabella is disgusted that he is asking this of her. She had hoped to find reason and comfort in her brother, so is unable to comprehend that he is telling her to agree to Angelo’s perverse demands. When the Duke, disguised as the Firar, overhears their conversation, he and Isabella hatch a plan, and together they convince Mariana, once betrothed to Angelo, to sleep with him in Isabella’s place. The following morning, Angelo holds fast to his order of execution, and Isabella, allowed by the Duke to think that Claudio has been killed (though the Duke saved his life unbeknownst to her) tears off her wimple as though now lacking faith, screaming, falling to the floor in despair, outraged, incensed, disgusted at the monstrousness of man. 

Lucy Phelps gives a profoundly passionate performance, full of raw and powerful emotion, and we can feel her pain as she rails at the injustice of the world – a world that will not believe her. Abused by men, she fights for justice, screaming for it repeatedly before testifying against Angelo in front of the Duke.  

Angelo initially appears nervous, uncomfortable and awkward. In company, especially in the company of the Duke, he is quiet, timid even. When the Duke leaves him in charge, bestowing upon him his livery collar, which Angelo takes great pride in wearing, he quickly grows into the role of superior, seeing the collar as a symbol that empowers him to do whatever he wants. At the end of the play, he clings tightly to the box containing the collar as he awaits the Duke’s return. When the Duke temporarily disappears to once more don his Friar’s disguise, Angelo puts the collar back around his neck, hurriedly taking it off when the Friar reveals himself to be the Duke. When Isabella returns to see him, we see his darker side as he grabs hold of her, running his hands over his body, ruled by a lechery arising from a sexual repression, asserting his power over the powerless woman who stands in his firm grasp, her hand clasped to her mouth in revolt and loathing, and body frozen with fear. 

Sandy Grierson gives an expertly skilful performance as Angelo. Grierson tries to manipulate us into feeling sorry for the character, trying to convince us of his innocence, and it is easy to become ensnared by his shrewd, slippery words. Making the character appear relatively harmless at first, in his monologues, he presents us with a man locked in a genuine emotional turmoil, struggling to understand who sins the most – the tempter, or the tempted. He seems to believe that she has sinned as much as he, protesting his innocence on the grounds of diminished responsibility, for she as the temptress led him astray, victimising himself. Today, it is common that women are blamed for such similar circumstances, excuses including the way they dress. Blame is passed from perpetrator to victim, and often the victims go unheard, whilst the perpetrators prosper due to power, standing, and wealth.  

Isabella joins Mariana in pleading for Angelo’s life after the Duke passes a sentence of death, believing that his faults will create a better man, extending mercy where they found none. 

Joseph Arkley is wonderful as the well-dressed, cane-wielding Lucio, who seeks to evade a prostitute he got pregnant. Though it is he who first bids Isabella go to Angelo, he gets himself into trouble by speaking ill of the Duke to the disguised Duke, and by continuing to speak out of turn at the trail of Angelo. The Duke punishes him by forcing him to marry the prostitute, much to his dismay.

David Ajao is hilarious as pimp Pompey, providing light-hearted comic relief with his quick wit and suave style. Graeme Brookes makes a delightful drag Mistress Overdone, and a very comic brummy prisoner Barnadine.

James Cooney gives a superb performance as the wrongfully condemned Claudio, accused of fornication with Juliet, who is pregnant. Publicly exposed as a lecher, Claudio is sentenced to death by Angelo. However, Angelo becomes guilty of the very crime he condemns Claudio for.

Tom Dawze is hugely entertaining as Froth, brought before officials by Constable Elbow for allegedly sleeping with Elbow’s wife. Drunk and trouserless, Froth tries his very best to act sober, taking cues from Pompey as both protest their innocence. Michael Patrick’s Constable Elbow is unintentionally funny as his lack of understanding regarding the meaning of certain words causes him to declare that he detests his wife, and that he didn’t respect her until after they married – to do so beforehand would be immoral.

When the Duke proposes to Isabella, she screams into the silence that follows – and this scream has echoed down the ages, continuing to echo today, and is heard throughout this production – a production that hopes,that fights, that champions, justice.

‘Measure for Measure’ crackles with integrity, honesty and righteousness, putting corruption and hypocrisy in the docks, passing a death sentence on the abuse of power that rages in officials today.

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