One of the most rewarding aspects about watching Shakespeare in the 21st century is to realise how little has changed. RSC supremo Gregory Doran has set his new version of Measure for Measure in the Vienna of the 1900s, a time and a place of louche decadence, during the final knockings of the Habsburg Empire. The play may have been written over 400 years ago, but it was equally relevant a hundred years ago, and indeed today – particularly with the #metoo generation in mind, where (you could say) the puritan Angelo is just as bad* as your Harvey Weinsteins* of today (*allegedly). (*I didn’t say that).
As an introduction to the plot, in case you don’t know… The Duke of Vienna has had enough of the limelight so leaves the administration of the city in the capable hands of his deupty, Angelo, and his assistant Escalus. Whilst Escalus is a safe pair of hands, and can be expected to mete out justice fairly, Angelo reveals himself to be a puritan fanatic. He unearths old laws that prohibit anything bawdy, and as a result closes all the whorehouses, and sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for having got his fiancé with child. Given that she was a willing participant in the exercise, that’s more than a bit tough. Claudio’s friend Lucio tells the condemned man’s sister Isabella about her brother’s fate, so she attends on Angelo to try to persuade him to change his mind. But Angelo’s price to preserve Claudio’s life is more costly on a personal level than Isabella is prepared to pay… Aha.
Measure for Measure is delightfully uncategorisable; hence its consideration as one of Shakespeare’s three Problem Plays – and probably the most accessible and relatable of those works. Broadly it’s a comedy, but with some very savage aspects, and an ending that doesn’t comply with the usual multi-marriage tie-ups you expect from the genre. It has the bawdiness of the Merry Wives, the clownish policing of Much Ado, the plea for mercy of the Merchant of Venice and the uncompromisingly uncertain final resolution of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It satirises puritanism more sinisterly than Shakespeare’s treatment of Malvolio, and it reveals hypocrisy like the best Molière. It even cheerfully beheads a prisoner whose time hasn’t come yet.
The 1900s setting works well enough, with hints of Viennese waltzes, frock coats and painted trollops, although the timelessness of the story and its quiet, understated horror, means you quickly forget about the outward show, and, to be honest, it could be anytime, anyplace. Deep down, it’s all about the powerplay between Angelo and Isabella, and the Duke’s subsequent devious plans to right the wrongs without being castigated for handing over control. The contrast between the Angelo’s clinical brutality and, say, the jokey shenanigans of the pimp Pompey or the foolish constable Elbow, is stark and uncomfortable; but they do very successfully show that it takes all sorts to make a dukedom. Only Lucio bridges the gap between the classes, being both educated and courtly, but also absurd and foppish; whilst he mixes in the high circles of power, and, with apologies for mixing my analogies here, like Icarus he flies too close to the sun.
This is a fine, strong, satisfying production with great performances across the board. Lucy Phelps’ Isabella is a hearty, determined young woman but who won’t allow her moral standards to slip. It’s a great portrayal of a small cog in a big machine, out of her depth when the consequences of her actions become clear. There’s a great scene between Ms Phelps and James Cooney, as the forlorn, clueless Claudio, when he’s uncomprehending as to why she wouldn’t make this sacrifice for him and she’s furious that he should even ask such a thing; two little people lost in a vast, cruel world.
Sandy Grierson is excellent as the cold, calculating Angelo; looking like a cross between Uriah Heep and Vladimir Putin, and about as trustworthy as both of them, he assumes mock humility at first but is quick to gain ruthless confidence. It’s a measure of the seriousness of his performance that when he cowers on the floor, trembling at the prospect of a night of extorted rapture, that we don’t find it funny, like we would Malvolio. This Angelo allows us the wry smiles of recognising hypocrisy but no more; even when he is condemned to marriage with Mariana, we don’t laugh at his woe. Mr Grierson gives us a superb portrayal of a man who is ugly on the inside; a chancer who spreads misery where he can but is powerless against true authority.
Claire Price is fantastic as Escalus, beautifully upright, clear and decisive in her pronouncements; Joseph Arkley imbues Lucio with true upper-crust mischief making; and there are brilliant comic turns from Michael Patrick as the overzealous but under-accurate Elbow, and David Ajao as the wisecracking wide boy Pompey. Great support also from Amanda Harris as the surprisingly kindly Provost, Graeme Brookes as the flustered Mistress Overdone and the bizarrely assertive Barnadine, and Sophie Khan Levy as the much-wronged Mariana.
But it’s Antony Byrne’s magnificent portrayal of the Duke, with his innate authority at court and his overwhelmingly positive masquerade as Friar Lodowick that knits together all the threads of this superb production, full equally of humour and underplayed horror, and that helps to make this – in my humble opinion – the RSC’s best revival this year so far. Plenty of opportunities to see it, as it’s playing at Stratford until the end of August and then is on tour throughout the country until April, including the Christmas season at the Barbican. An excellent production of this perpetually relevant play.
Production photos by Helen Maybanks