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FringeReview UK 2019

Measure for Measure

Royal Shakespeare Company

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Dark Comedy, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: RSC Barbican


Low Down

Directed by Gregory Doran with design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, lit by Simon Spencer with music composed by Paul Englishby – Lindsey Miller and Connor Fogel as Musical Directors. Sound design’s by Steven Atkinson, with Lucy Cullingford as Movement Director. Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. Associate Director is Leigh Toney.


It’s the most lucid, detailed, accessible production of this problem play for years. Gregory Doran setting Measure for Measure in the Vienna of 1900 ought to thank Thomas Middleton too.

When, as Gary Taylor convincingly argues, Middleton ‘improved’ (yet again) Shakespeare’s text around 1621, he changed the setting: from Verona (thus Shakespeare’s favourite imagined city) to Vienna; and dropped a couple of stewed scenes into the mix. Thus Shakespeare’s third Verona becomes an Italianate Vienna. Doran revels in the steam but makes fin-de-siecle rather early – and very relevant – for the 21st century.

And traces of Middleton’s scenes remain in this study of a city of vice whose reigning Duke Vincenzio  quits the place, leaving a deputy, to see it better: slinking back in the guise of Friar Lodovic. In 2 hours 50 we see even those oft-cut brothel and prison scenes virtually entire. Though Doran’s reading allows a patient, never slow unfolding, there’s a notable brisking-up in Acts 4 and 5 after the interval which impels a terrific climax.

The play’s a supreme comment on the hieratic humanized by stooping to the flesh it denies; learning ‘measure still for measure’ in a profounder sense than the justice of ‘a death for a death’. The rancid underworld’s comic and condemned but humour and warmth are redeemable things. Indeed together with all those revived laws against sex on pain of death, the sacred doesn’t come off too well.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ monochrome design transfers well to the Barbican, with video projections of barred interiors on black surfaces, lofty offices, sacred ones and finally an acropolis-sized railway station give on to a gantry. Below it there’s a series of René Mackintosh-like Art Nouveau glass doors.

It’s lit by Simon Spencer to throw oily shadows all over this. Paul Englishby’s memorable music is enveloped in a sound design by Steven Atkinson, where Lucy Cullingford’s Movement Director mingles a flurry of diagonal confrontations and triangular huddles.

Antony Byrne’s Duke delights in his deputies Sandy Grierson’s Angelo and Escalus (Claire Price), holding their hands as he disdains the acclaim of multitudes. At first he seems to hold his nose even at them, looking straight out as if even their sight disturbs. We’re reminded of James I and when in his friar disguise Byrne declares of women the Duke (like James) ‘was not inclined that way’ it’s with a delighted hint the first performer mightn’t have dared in front of the monarch.

Not that (unlike James) the Duke disdains to mingle. In fact he progressively sheds inhibitions, taking a positively voyeuristic glee in being (as he denies to Lucio) ‘the old fantastical Duke of dark corners’. Byrne in a crescendo of delight schemes his way back to power, chuckling, almost dancing. He fast becomes what Lucio slanderously claims and by the end indeed ‘knows the game’. Though this darkens him, it humanizes him too. Surely this mingling is the whole point. If you have a Deputy who ‘when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice’ as the flanneur Lucio also speculates, it’s axiomatic you’re going to get heaving stews.

Left by the Duke, Grierson’s Angelo commands the just but merciful Escalus to join him in reviving those severe edicts. Claudio, brother of the novice nun Isabella has got his fiancée Juliet pregnant, so despite their imminent marriage, he must die.

Meanwhile actual brothel-owners in an incoherent set of tirades get off scot-free, not least because Escalus is left to threaten Pompey (David Ajao, a terrific pimp), Tom Dawze’s French farce of BDSM Froth and Mistress Overdone (Graeme Brookes, a peacock in burgundy) with whipping – but… next time. Michael Patrick’s policeman Elbow might have strayed out of Dogberry’s watch, but he saves these malefactors by malapropisms of his own. As Friar Thomas he’s also the Duke’s only confidant

Joseph Arkley’s carnation-buttoned Lucio, attached to them but capable of leaving them in jail, is a literal go-between linking their world and Isabella’s. Arkley’s such a natty strutter you could write a play round him. Oops, perhaps someone has. He looms over or dominates virtually scene he’s in.

Grierson’s a veritable John Knox and the kind who’d pen monstrous regiments of anti-women edicts before he knows himself. His Weinstein moment as Angelo comes with the icy ‘Who will believe thee, Isabel?’ Novice Isabella’s ferocity afterwards – both towards her brother’s vacillation and his supposed death ‘I will pluck out his eyes’, of Angelo – is that of a woman whose belief in justice and hierarchy collapses with violence to herself. We’re left with a belated #MeToo moment all the more ferocious for the brimstone of betrayal.

James Cooney’s affecting as a young, warm-hearted everyman whose querulous ‘Oh but to die and go we know not where’ mightn’t cut Isabella’s ice but cuts through to all the doubts an audience then or now might feel. It undercuts the Duke’s previous ‘Be absolute for death’ let alone ‘an after-dinner sleep, dreaming on both’.

Lucy Phelps is outstanding as Isabella, and one to watch. She like the Duke goes a journey, at each iteration melting, then shrinking in horror then weaponing her fury in an un-Christian violence that proclaims ferocious passions. With Phelps Isabella’s outrageous preening of her previous ‘more than our brother is our chastity’ and even earlier call ‘for more strict restraints’ for her order, recalls Muriel Bradbrook’s pronouncement: ‘we sense her too extreme, that the nunnery is not the place for her, and she will not end there.‘ Isabella’s sensuality indeed explodes. ‘The keen impression of whips I’ll wear as rubies’ and ‘strip my self to death as to a bed that longing had been sick for’ is as dark a sexuality as Angelo’s, if more powerless. What a pity they’re not destined for each other. And how right Angelo’s instinct is. But Isabella, like the Duke and unlike Angelo, is capable of being woke.

No more so than when confronted by Mariana, Angelo’s ex-fiancée and companion in the disguised Duke’s proposed bed-trick to convince Angelo he’s bedded Isabella, as the price of pardoning Claudio. Sophie Khan Levy’s plea to Isabella to sue to the Duke for Angelo’s life despite his apparent murder of her brother, is the most powerful scene of all. It’s a mirror of Isabella’s early pleas to Angelo, but here her wimple, like the Duke’s hood is off, and her hair speaks her human even physical. It’s the clearest reclaiming of her secular femininity. As she kneels for Angelo, just as she previously bade him kneel and pray with her (that aroused him) her pride licks the dust, but her awakening is something else: it also comprehends just what the Duke intends. Which if we take Doran’s delicious point, is piquant.

Claire Price’s sympathetic, if exasperated Escalus is matched by Amanda Harris’ Provost, notably kind in each of her superficially severe pronouncements and regretful asides.

The production teems with riveting cameos. Amy Trigg’s ‘groaning Juliet’ with her appalled disbelief at Claudio’s death sentence. Patrick Brennan’s ‘look you’ guild-hugging Abhorson ‘sir it is a mystery’ about head-chopping is wonderfully guyed by his new assistant, Ajao’s Pompey. Most imposing is Brookes’ recurrence of Barnadine whose character as Harold Bloom points out anchors the human in nihilism declaring: ‘I will not be hanged, for any man’s persuasion.’ Both spooked and utterly jinxed when pardoned Brookes runs howling into the wings.

Hannah Azuonye as Angelo’s Secretary is also Mariana’s singer in ‘Take O take those lips away’ and it’s a memorable forty seconds. Karina Jones in the tiny role as Sister Francisca exudes a Mother Superior warmth. Finally Melody Brown, Lucio’s eventual betrothed Kate Keepdown and Gentleman Alexander Mushrore function as Lucio’s gantry companions and cheer-leaders.

The climax is breathtaking. Even in its acceleration, absolutely right for this work at full stretch, there’s heart-stopping moments, notably with the unmasking of the Duke and the plucking back of slandering Lucio to a wry justice. But it’s when Phelps’ Isabella pleads for Angelo’s life at his new wife’s behest (‘will you mock me with a husband?’ she complains to the Duke) that we move into that rare fifth gear.

The denouement’s extraordinary, ending with a sigh. Even Doran and Byrne can’t pluck out the heart of this mystery. Who has? Is the Duke’s offer of marriage to Isabella a mockery or a mystery of two people who recognize they’ve stooped to the earth and what makes it worth living on? It’s a testament to this outstanding production that it prompts such questions.