Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Blanche McIntyre says that what draws her to a particular text are the “difficult questions, thorny text” and “impenetrable problems”. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a perfect fit.
The city seems overrun with brothels and iniquity, but rather than fix it herself, the Duke decides to temporarily absent herself and leave Angelo, an uptight stickler, in her place. Little does Angelo know that the Duke hasn’t truly left and has instead disguised herself as a friar to keep an eye. In the meantime, Angelo condemns a young man, Claudio, to death for having impregnated his girlfriend, a punishment unheard of when a wedding would have resolved the issue. His sister Isabella, a nun, comes to argue his case and is propositioned by the apparently morally upright Angelo who claims he will free her brother if she gives up her virginity.
This is one of Shakespeare’s ‘comedies’, which only serves to further the thorniness and impenetrability of the text desirable to McIntyre, given that regardless of the moral quandaries and shady characters, we know it has to end ‘happily’. McIntyre has chosen to set up in ‘70s England which works very neatly with the clashing moralities, and the jaunty, drunken nonsense-speak of the brothel owners and frequenters, conversations filled with a twinkle and a wink. A madrigal-style band playing from the gallery manages to weave through dreamy ‘70s rhythms and riffs. She’s also managed to pass off the Wanamaker’s characteristic candlelight as a necessity caused by the frequent blackouts during that time, a tidy fix that detracts not a jot from the lovely, glowing intimacy of the candles.
Casting the duke as a woman is a stroke of brilliance, changing the dynamic from a flexing patriarchy to a modern society wrestling with antiquated habits, and Hattie Ladbury perfectly fits the brief. Charming and awkward in her movements and adorably excitable, she is equally acutely fearsome when it’s required.
Ashley Zhangazha’s Angelo is similarly brilliant, containing both the respectable conservative and the hypocritical villain in one. Georgia Landers’ performance as Isabella the nun is believably wholesome without being sickeningly so, whilst also being entirely self-assured and complex. In short, there are no lacklustre performances. Whilst some bit-parts are neither here nor there, the main thrust is funny and bold
The only problem with this performance is the problem of a lot of Shakespeare ‘comedies’, and that is the overly complicated and unsatisfyingly tidy end. Angelo is a villain, no doubt. And yet his punishment is marriage to a woman who he previously wronged in a broken engagement. Not sure what message that’s supposed to convey. Also, it’s not entirely clear why the Duke has to go through a whole finicky rigmarole before revealing her disguise. Of course it’s absolute sacrilege to even suggest editing Shakespeare. That being said, shortening that down a bit would cut out a nice twenty-minute chunk too, which would also be appreciated.
The bizarre and convoluted ethics of Measure For Measure could easily sentence it to obscurity. But despite the story feeling a little unresolved, McIntyre has somehow managed to tie its complications to the complications of modern society. No, the bad guys don’t quite get their just deserts, but at least there a still plenty of good guys, and they’re sticking together.
Runs until 15 January 2022