Measure for Measure
National Theatre, London, UK.
This is a dark vision of Shakespeare’s notorious
problem play, playing down the inherent humour in favour of a more
sinister approach to the text. Directed by Simon McBurney, (who also
plays the Duke), this production moves the action to the 1940s, where
Vincentio, Angelo (Angus Wright) and Escalus (Mike Grady) are members of
the war cabinet from which the Duke is urgently called away.
The play opens on two lovers kissing in the rain, making immediate the
sombre mood of the piece. It quickly moves to a boldly graphic scene
inside a brothel where the ribald humour of Lucio (Ajay Naidu) and
Mistress Overdone (Tamzin Griffin) is somewhat overwhelmed by the tawdry
setting and the shabbiness of the prostitutes. These women are not
laughing whores: they are abused women, used up and worn out. Only
Pompey (Richard Katz) manages to get a laugh in this scene, saved by an
oddly winsome earthiness.
Angus Wright’s Angelo is a damaged man: self-harming and full of
loathing for the sins he finds in himself and others. His desire for
Isabella is disturbing and yet rather pathetic. The scene where she
pleads with him for Claudio’s life is surprisingly tender, and they seem
to have an emotional connection with each other. Then the action takes a
violent and shocking twist, with Isabella partially undressed and
molested by Angelo. Naomi Frederick’s performance as Isabella was
spirited but fairly emotionless. I wasn’t sure who this girl was or what
her real feelings were. She left me cold, and without the compassion
that I usually feel for Isabella.
I felt that many of the characters in this production were fairly
opaque. The Duke as Friar seemed to be manipulating the situation for
his own ends rather than for the greater good; Claudio (Ben Meyjes)
seemed irritated rather than terrified at the idea of his death, and
Mariana (Anamaria Marinca) seemed merely desperate. Real depth seemed to
be lacking. Yet in a play about dishonesty, deception and injustice,
where true motives are unclear and no character is quite what they seem,
perhaps the decision not to take an extreme direction is in itself
The setting - dimly lit, with a stage comprising television screens,
cameras and microphones - suggests a world of paranoia, where anyone
could be the enemy. This play is full of slamming doors, buzzers,
telephones and other loud shocks. It is unsettling to the nerves, and
serves to accentuate the horrors of the prison and the whorehouse which
spill over into the outside world. Everything in this play suggests
sickness and filth rather than evil and sin, and we are left wondering
if the punishments meted out really are fitting for the crimes
committed. No happy ending here then: marriages are ordered by the Duke,
and not in good spirit. At the proposal made by the Duke we see
Isabella merely staring. But there are no cheap laughs here. We are
shown the marital bed, and left with Isabella looking into distance,
wearing a contemplative expression that is difficult to interpret. The
sound of yet another slamming door further illustrates the point.
A co-production between the National Theatre and Complicite, this is a
fascinating and truly unsettling production which, despite its lack of
comedy, nonetheless manages a bold and intriguing interpretation of
Measure for Measure.
This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.