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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Piano and vocals Katherine Gillham, Percussion Beth Higham-Edwards, Guitar Rob Updegraff, Violin and vocals, Alice Barron.

Directed by Blanche McIntyre, Designed by James Cotterill, Composer Tim Sutton, Assistant Director Craig Ritchie, Choreographer Emily Jane Boyle. Costume Supervisor Sian Harris, Fight Director Philip d’Orléans, Globe Associate – Text Giles Block, Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald, Globe Associate –  – Voice Tess Dignan, Candle Consultant Malcom Rippeth.

Till January 15th.


So James Cotterill’s set is almost traditional. Not just floor pattern but seedy beige-distressed tenements that look any period, though the descending iron staircase is pretty Roman. But there’s electric lighting.

Horror! This is the Wanamaker and Eloise Secker’s Pompey sleeks on with a tranny and white jacket. 1975 London, we’re told, as Gyuri Sarossy’s Lucio (fantastically tricked in a Seventies retro 1890s Ernest/Algernon light-squashed muskrat or something) drops clothes over the balcony with his habitual amused disdain. Sian Harris’ costumes delight the more we’re pushed to the stews, upbraiding the blue-meanie police-politician look. And there’s Tim Sutton’s sassy, lush, pseudo-quoting music to undercut it all.

Then we’re with the Duke and Escalus and there’s a power cut. Cue Malcom Rippeth’s magnificent array of candles, where one of the lighters obligingly lights up a ciggy for Pompey. And they’re up and down all day. London preserv’d!

Well no, not for a minute does London or 1975 come through. But who cares when we reflect that Thomas Middleton meddled with the play (as Gary Taylor proved) around 1621, changed it from (yet again!) Verona – Shakespeare must have loved the sound – to Vienna. And added two city stews scenes. That balcony? Headscarves? Police out of Accidental Death of an Anarchist? I’m sticking with Verona. Though written before indoors theatres, you feel here’s the first Shakespeare play that cries out for one. The Wanamaker’s its ideal space.

Blanche McIntyre’s Measure for Measure romps round its edges and coils explosive feelings within, here unleashed in some of the most ferocious avowals and disavowals of any production I’ve seen. Georgia Landers’ Isabella starts hunched till Sarossy’s Lucio prods her, then flares incandescent in that succeeding interview with Ashley Zhangazha’s Angelo, himself staccato to begin with then somehow fluent as lust breaks his ice, a man tied to the stake of himself and burning.

‘To whom should I complain… who would believe me?’ Isabella’s bleak #MeToo seems the more terrifying as you see her abandoning prayer altogether; her identity by contrast to Angelo is burning away in Landers’ excoriating reading.

Before that, Hattie Ladbury’s Duke, giving by all accounts (including the ushers) a commanding performance, succumbed reluctantly to the Globe 2021 season’s plague of leg injuries, sustained before Press Night. Here she’s replaced by the excellent, mordant Helena Lymbery, almost off the page initially wrapped in deep blues and blacks, with a senior La Dolce Vita light blue headscarf or mostly bare-headed as Friar Lodowick.

We’ve seen gender reversals of Angelo/Isabella in the Donmar’s 2018 ‘double’ version with a trad first half then inverted as Hayley Atwell becomes contemporary predator in a second take on the 75-minute speed-run of the play. McIntyre’s – and Lymbery’s – Duke is more interesting and sets up the play’s end tellingly.

Through much use of phones and pop-out heads (e.g. Friar Thomas) we’re sped through the Duke’s ‘why I’m in disguise’ rationales; though the old fantastical Duke of dark corners is here more exuberant plotter (as in the close of Act Three’s self-delighting rhymes rounding the first half) than self-questioning. Some few catch that elusive tone: Shakespeare merely hints.

The Duke’s rationale – apparently absenting herself from her post to create a vacuum for virtue and vice to thrive in – should be a judgement on her own 19-year rule. Knowing her Deputy Angelo’s ‘precise’ enforcement, it’s as if the whole city’s some Ducal experiment. You can see it’s the same Duke who tests Isabella: part lab, part torture chamber, part self-discovery, burning away Isabella’s own callow inhumanity. We get some of this, though the Duke’s brief Jesuistical moments, sibilantly persuading Claudio that ‘death as t’were an after-dinner sleep, dreaming on both’ are nearly absent.

By contrast McIntyre revels in the comedic scenes to a fault. Daniel Millar, warm and convincing Provost, often up against the Secker/ Sarossy double-act, makes a farcical scena as Elbow with exploding klaxon and Keystone Cops timing. Secker’s Pompey delights in another double act with Sarossy, his axe-trailing (and snagging) automaton-like Abhorson, eyes front on protecting his guild’s ‘mystery’ (you really get that other guilds laugh at his assertion; he’s wincing).

Justice abraded and finally flayed by farce gets so undermined that even Ishia Bennison’s excellent Escalus s cedes the ‘one last chance’ rule the Duke later follows.

Bennison is a moral centre here, first as Escalus weighing judgement with weary humanity in a way no-one else chooses; with only Millar’s Provost to rely on. It’s one of the strongest performances. As is Bennison’s magnificent Overdone, loudly protesting the pulling-down of her brothel, indeed thrusting the case of justice gone awry right under its own nose. Bennison’s Francisca is naturally brief, but her Barnadine, rising from the trap door, is triumphant, in a blue-grey wig, drinking all night and who’ll ‘not be hanged for any man’s persuasion.’ Harold Bloom suggests Barnadine’s outburst is the moral centre: humanity shrieks over ruthless expedience (they want his head). He has a point.

Secker makes a fine, almost Tennysonian Mariana, full of languish and mid-seventies black shades with patterned white dress to match, near a swimming pool, a bit Hockney, wholly obsessed with an unworthy man.  Her Juliet’s by contrast a study in frankness, plain truth.

Josh Zaré’s Claudio, overwhelmingly his core role (he flits in as a towering Friar Peter and Servant) makes a strong case for warmth and humanity, frailty and fear, gradating his appeal to feel the full force of his sister’s wrath: a thrillingly horrible scene.

Landers certainly concentrates the play’s Passion, and it is that. The ducal experiment tests her to a personal calvary, and Landers, though dignified, holds nothing back in extremis. This is where a production lives or dies, and this Isabella, pushed by the Duke, Mariana, finally herself, throws down her pride as frankly as a pin, strips herself to its death as to a bed that longing had been sick for.

It’s then Lymbery’s final gambit, an offer hovering, takes hold. It might be coercion, square one, or what the Duke suspects, a lesbian self-revelation Isabella’s experiencing right at the end, shuddering with self-knowledge. As Muriel Bradbrook once wrote of Isabella’s ‘more strict restraints’: ‘the monastery’s not the place for her, and we suspect she won’t end there.’

There are a few disconnects, where comedy has to switchback, but few missed chances. Only one matters. The end has Lucio’s last lines instead of raillery in his ‘pressing to death’, full of shrieking and hauling-off. It’s meant here as a bit of modish darkness but it’s too sour. The Duke’s rejoinder is meant to be funny.

If Gregory Doran’s 2019 RSC production remains perhaps the gold standard of the last decade, there’s more needs saying; McIntyre’s production provokes more of this in its core dynamics than any other Measure for Measure I’ve seen. Its comedic touches are up with the best. And its hint at a solution to the Duke and Isabella easily one of the most tantalising, even satisfying ever. Immerse yourself in McIntyre’s quizzical world. You’ll come nearer to this play.