Wednesday, 15 February 2006

Measure for Measure - National Theatre 2006

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 illuminating.

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.

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