Writer: William Shakespeare
Associate Director:Leigh Toney
Shakespeare reset; this RSC production takes us to turn-of-the-century Vienna.
The city’s morality has been allowed to degenerate; brothels are reporting great business. The Duke of Vienna, unable to keep control of the city, has two options. Stay and risk failure, or stage a departure, leaving his deputy, Angelo, in charge.
Handing over the chains of office, the Duke (Antony Byrne) appears to abandon the city, but returns in disguise to see how Angelo fares. Angelo (Sandy Grierson) takes his promotion to heart, instigating strict new laws to ensure Vienna’s morality stays on the straight and narrow. The city’s brothels are first in line; owners of one such institution, Mistress Overdone (a fabulous Graeme Brookes) and her pimp, Pompey (David Ajao) have reason to be nervous. Among those falling foul of the law is a young man, Claudio (James Cooney). Found guilty of getting his fiancée pregnant, the sentence is death.
Hearing of Claudio’s grim fate, his friend Lucio (Joseph Arkley) decides to visit Claudio’s sister, Isabella. Living in a convent, Isabella (Lucy Phelps) is innocent in every respect. When confronted with the news about Claudio, she goes to Angelo to plead his case. Her passionate cry for justice – some of Shakespeare’s best lines are here – has an unintended consequence. Inflamed by desire, Angelo makes her a proposition. Her brother’s life for her virginity.
Shakespeare has the knack – happy or otherwise – of prescience. The dilemma at the play’s centre speaks to where we are in terms of a move in socio-political thinking. However, in this play, a woman’s body is still the price and the prize. In a truly grotesque scene, Angelo gropes hopefully at Isabella’s taut, terrifying frame.
But this is Measure for Measure, and as darkly drawn as the scenes between Angelo and Isabella are, Shakespeare counters this with comedic misrule. As Mistress Undone and Pompey are arrested, David Ajao dials up the glee, as Pompey finds jail quite to his liking. A ready wit serves him well in this new world order. Shakespeare’s rogues tend to prosper, and Measure for Measure is no exception.
As the play resolves, we edge towards a middle ground. Untangling the law and making it fair, is messy and complicated – a process that cannot be bestowed with a badge or chain.
While the production doesn’t break much new ground itself, Measure for Measure works because of its clarity. Using mirrored panels, and beautifully atmospheric live music, it takes confidence to play it this simple, but Measure for Measure really benefits from this approach. With no pull of focus, the audience can concentrate on what is being said. In the final scenes, as we move from regime to democracy, the production acknowledges that oppression belongs to every age. Nothing has changed. But it could.
Runs until Saturday 22 February | Image: Contributed