Measure for Measure is described as a dark comedy, and some weighty themes and comedic riffs are certainly explored in this, one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays. Presented as part of a trilogy touring the country, it offers an insight to something beyond the well-known tragedies, history plays and all out comedies.
Dr Peter Kirwan, Associate Professor in Early Modern Drama, University of Nottingham, gave an insightful pre-show talk, describing the themes of Measure for Measure, specifically in the wake of the #MeToo movement. This served to usefully highlight, were it not already obvious, the patriarchal structure in the play that treats women as chattels and sex as a currency. And by doing so, also reminded us of the appalling lack of progress made in society’s treatment and expectations of women since this was first written. Feeling righteously emboldened by this talk, the expectation is for a challenging and dramatic production.
The essential plot follows the Duke of Vienna, who, unable to gain control of his increasingly immoral city and its inhabitants, leaves and appoints his deputy, Angelo, to rule. Angelo revives strict laws of morality and a young man, Claudio, is sentenced to death for having made his fiancée Juliet pregnant. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, a novice nun, tries to intervene on his behalf. Angelo declares he will save Claudio – but only if Isabella will sleep with him.
Angelo is played with great intensity by Sandy Grierson, his containment and rectitude reflected in his tense, twisted posture and buttoned-up manner. It is therefore unnerving to watch him discover an impulse of desire towards Isabella and his obvious discomfort also makes the audience squirm. But from narrow-minded puritan to blackmailer, is the matter of a moment, and his calculated self-interest is loathsome to behold. The pure and open Isabella is entirely shocked by this development and Lucy Phelps in the role describes Isabella’s fearful and distraught reaction with her whole body. Until this point, Isabella has been a confident, intelligent and persuasive supplicant for her brother’s life. The scales are lifted from her eyes and she sees the world afresh in all its debasement.
The moral hypocrisy and daily mistreatment of women that is highlighted in Gregory Doran’s production is dreadful to see, but has so much to say about today, when institutions of all kinds are discovering wrong doing in their depth, as part of the #MeToo movement. Angelo taunts Isabella ‘Who will believe you?’ when she threatens to reveal him. Even as the victim, the woman has no power.
Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis uses a series of movable mirrors to both reflect and refract, shine a light on and disguise, the many contradictory moral viewpoints and characters.
As a thought-provoking and dark play, it is challenging and resonant but the second act turns into a sort of black comedy of errors, with decapitated heads squirting blood and bawds, pimps and policeman enjoying broad ribaldry. This combination of challenging themes and low-key comedy doesn’t fit well together and, not knowing the play in detail, it is unclear whether this is the play itself or the production.
With the superb standards of acting and interpretation, the exquisite costumes, clever sets and minute attention that we have come to expect of the RSC, it is of course, still a striking and professional production, just one that defies simple categorisation.
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Do you travel by public transport and come across annoying fellow travellers? Then check out Phil Lowe’s hilarious new book! below. Recommended age 16+