Measure For Measure – Barbican Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Gregory Doran

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Shakespeare’s problem play gets a 1900’s update in Gregory Doran’s production for the RSC now playing in rep at The Barbican. But placing Measure For Measure in Austria at the height of the Vienna Secession Movement does little to solve – or further complicate – the issues in this tale of exploitation.

When Claudio is sentenced for death for getting his fiancée pregnant, his sister Isabella goes to the new governor of the city to plead for his life. The governor is Angelo, well known for his draconian approach to the law, and at first he dismisses Isabella’s entreaties, but slowly he finds himself desiring her. She is about to become a nun, and her purity excites him. He offers her a deal; he will release Claudio if she consents to sleep with him. She refuses saying that while Claudio would die once she ‘should die forever.’

With such a plot it’s hard to believe that this play was once labelled a comedy when it was first published in 1623, twenty years after it was written. There is little to find funny here and wisely Doran keeps the tone serious, and the comedic episodes featuring Pompey and Mistress Overdone are played as sideshows. However, Doran has also removed all the pace and soon the play becomes burdened by its own dialogue. With hardly any action, Measure for Measure is stranded on the Barbican’s wide stage.

The stage and the set dwarf the actors, and their emotions are signalled by the words they speak rather than by their body language. There is little connection or tension between Isabella and Angelo, or between Angelo and the Duke, who returns to govern the city, and this makes for a long evening with the last scene stretched out interminably.

Occasionally there are flashes of what this play could be if it were more firmly set in a post #MeToo world. Isabella threatens to tell Vienna about Angelo’s indecent proposal, but he scoffs at this proclaiming that no one would believe her, that his position and reputation are too strong for such accusations. She turns to the audience and asks, like many women have asked, ‘To whom should I complain?’ Only in the play’s final moments are we asked to ponder Isabella’s fate again, prompting us to question whether Measure For Measure was ever seen as a play with a happy ending.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is convincing, especially in her measured rage for Angelo, who is played with understated menace by Sandy Grierson. Amanda Harris is excellent as the Provost, while the comedy is provided by David Ajao as a Jamaican Pompey and by Joseph Arkley as a dandified Lucio. The latter is the only character that seems to work with Doran’s 1900’s update and when he’s strutting around the stage with his quiff and his cane, he cuts a dashing figure, but none of the other characters seem as if they are inhabiting the same era as Lucio. Unfortunately the set does not resemble the paintings by Gustav Klimt and his protégé Egon Schiele contained within the programme, and as such Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set, a row of mirrors upon a wooden floor, is disappointing.

Despite the update, this production is a fairly traditional production, workmanlike and unexciting. With As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew receiving similar mediocre reviews this is a lacklustre winter season for the RSC.

Runs in rep until 16 January 2019 | Helen Maybanks 

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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