Measure for Measure – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Gregory Doran

Reviewer: James Garrington

A powerful man offers help to a young woman in return for sexual favours.

These days reading a headline like this may leave you feeling shocked, or maybe no longer surprised – for stories like this have been quite prominent in the news over the past several months as more and more women disclose how they too have been put into similar positions. In this case, though, the story was written some 400 years ago by William Shakespeare, being one of the central themes of Measure for Measure. In fact, the issue of the way women are treated by men is ongoing throughout this powerful and witty new production by Gregory Doran.

The Duke of Vienna has gone away, leaving Angelo in charge in his absence – and he immediately reinstates some old lapsed laws, leading to Claudio being arrested for getting his fiancée pregnant. Claudio’s sister Isabella, about to take her vows as a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for mercy – he agrees, as long as she agrees to sleep with him in return. Shocked she refuses, and threatens to denounce him – a threat he laughs off, leaving her wondering “to whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?”

The production is set in Vienna in the 19thcentury yet feels distinctly modern and relevant today. Alongside the powerful messages about the treatment of women there are also some wonderful moments of humour throughout the piece, creating a vivid contrast and so adding to the drama inherent in some of the other scenes – and though we have heard and read the #MeToo stories it is still shocking to see the scene played out in front of you, and hearing the same cries of despair from the woman involved.

If it all sounds a bit heavy going, don’t despair – the comedy keeps coming too, with both slapstick and some very funny characterisations. Antony Byrne’s Duke is a stern and serious man with a sly wit, while his deputy Angelo (Sandy Grierson) is serious, upright and devoutly religious – something which does not stop him propositioning Isabella, played by Lucy Phelps with a beautifully pitched and well-judged performance. The bulk of the humour comes from an array of over-the-top fantastical characters. Joseph Arkley is a supremely witty, smooth-talking and self-centred Lucio, a dapper man-about-town who always wants to be the centre of attention, with Graeme Brookes providing two outrageously funny characters as brothel-owner Mistress Overdone and Barnardine, the prisoner who claims that he can’t be executed today because he’s suffering from a hangover. Michael Patrick is a determinedly confused Constable Elbow, while leading the comedy stakes is David Ajao as Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant, the man who knows everyone and who tries to talk his way out of everything.

Being Vienna there’s music (composed by Paul Englishby) of course, as is so often the case at the RSC, and it enhances the production well with an all-too-brief snatch of song beautifully delivered by Hannah Azuonye. The simple but elegant set (Stephen Brimson Lewis) and good use of projection all add to the atmosphere too.

Relevant, powerful and witty, there is much here to enjoy in Gregory Doran’s superb production.

Runs Until 29 August 2019  | Image: Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

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Powerful, witty and relevant.

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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