Measure for Measure, Young Vic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

From the moment the house lights fall at the Young Vic, there’s no doubting that this Measure for Measure is about sex. The curtains – plastic, wipe-clean – part to reveal a writhing orgy of blow-up dolls, painted mouths stretched wide, from which the cast emerge. At the show’s opening, Vienna is soaked in sin. The tight fist of the law has slackened and the people are running amok. In one sense, Shakespeare’s prickly, problematic play is one long tussle to reinstate discipline and restraint. Trouble is, sex – like those miniature mountains of blow-up dolls – is impossible to ignore or deny.

In Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production, everything about the characters can be read from the way they deal with this tangle of plastic limbs. Zubin Varla’s “old fantastical duke of dark corners”, dishevelled and wide-eyed, proclaims to “love the people” in the same movement as trampling his inflatable citizens underfoot. He wants to restore order, but he doesn’t want to be the one to do it. Instead, he appoints Angelo, a man who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows”. Prim as a village priest, Bible tucked under his arm like a comfort blanket, Paul Ready’s unlikely leader picks his way carefully through the debauchery, careful to at once ignore and avoid it. Revelling subjects, meanwhile, throw the dolls from hand to hand, finding pleasure wherever they can.

Then there’s Isabella. The first time we see her, Romola Garai’s nun-in-training wearily pushes all relics of earthly temptation out of her way, murmuring reverent words of prayer as she does so. No hanky-panky for her, nor seemingly any desire for it. When her brother Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) is to be executed as an example – his pre-marital sexual exploits here caught on tape in a sly nod to surveillance culture – she finds her voice, making a persuasive petition to Angelo. Garai’s Isabella might be forbiddingly austere, but she’s also steely and impassioned, positively spitting out the words “man, proud man”. Although she’s trapped in what is still, for all the modern dress, overwhelmingly a man’s world, she is not a woman to underestimate.

This is a Measure for Measure full of fascinating if sometimes incongruous character interpretations. Ready’s Angelo is a preening, cowardly tyrant, preaching with new-found vanity one moment and shrinking into corners the next. Overcome by desire for Isabella, he grasps uncertainly at one of the pillars enclosing the stage, desperate for something to hold onto in this new world of dissolving morals. For all his seeming meekness, though, the proposition he puts to Isabella is doubly unsettling for its tentative, insidious abuse of power – an abuse that is still painfully resonant. This Angelo could just as well be a smarmy businessman making advances on a young female employee.

On the side of the more open sinners, unapologetic pimp Pompey (Tom Edden) seems to have arrived in Vienna straight from the streets of New York, conning his way out of trouble with fast-talking, ad-libbing wit. His regular client Lucio, on the other hand, is a cynical and surprisingly clear-sighted transgressor in John Mackay’s aggressive performance, pursuing the disguised Duke with dogged suspicion. Stripping the text down to a slender two hours, Hill-Gibbins and dramaturg Zoë Svendsen have cut or minimised many of Shakespeare’s minor, comedic characters, rolling bumbling constable Elbow into Hammed Animashaun’s uniformed Provost and keeping brothel owner Mistress Overdone offstage. Instead, we see this side of Vienna via a brilliantly daft – if possibly superfluous – pastiche of 90s hip-hop videos, as drug- and sex-fuelled anarchy reins in open mockery of Angelo’s new regime.

There are lots of these bold but silly touches in Hill-Gibbins’ production, some more successful than others. When Cath Whitefield’s spurned Mariana rocks out to Alanis Morissette, it’s hard to know whether to read it as an ironic comment on the angry-woman-wronged trope or just a gag designed for easy laughs. Other stage images, like those ever-present inflatable bodies, are both absurd and articulate, making a statement on the play at the same time as revelling in their own strangeness and audacity.

Aside from all the dolls, the most striking aspect of Miriam Buether’s design is its allusion to the fiery and fantastical imagery of medieval religious painting. The back wall of the performance space, periodically sliding aside to reveal the police cell where justice is clumsily meted out, is laid out in three panels like a triptych altarpiece, projected both with scenes from Christian paintings and live streamed video of the performers (now something of a European-flavoured Hill-Gibbins trademark). In one scene, we see a close-up of Claudio’s desperate, pleading face; in another, a cackling painted devil.

And like those paintings, Hill-Gibbins and Buether draw out both the excess and the religiosity – hypocritical or otherwise – of Shakespeare’s play. For all their holy intent, artworks like Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement or Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights are a riot of colour and bodies and flames, as ridiculous in their own way as the piles of plastic flesh on the stage of the Young Vic. There’s no reason why the bizarre shouldn’t knock up against the Biblical.

Crucially, Hill-Gibbins and his team don’t attempt to solve the problem at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. Their interpretation embraces strangeness and ambiguity, its swirling soup of religious and pop cultural references never subsiding into a neat pattern. This is a dark play, for sure, but it’s also sexy and transgressive and funny and ludicrous. As the final scene awkwardly arranges the characters into their unlikely (and likely unhappy) pairings, that spiky contradiction that runs right through the play is slammed – like the dolls – centre stage.

Photo: Keith Pattinson.

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Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“Which is the wiser here?” asks Escalus, the Duke’s put-upon adviser in Measure for Measure. “Justice or Iniquity?” It’s a question that Shakespeare’s famously problematic play is constantly asking us. At its centre is a thorny moral dilemma, but often it’s the sinning and corrupt who seem to have the most fun. Is it better to uphold honour and ethics or to grab hold of life’s more earthly pleasures while we can? And in performance, where does the emphasis fall? On solemn debates about justice and morality, or on the lechery that the play’s authorities try and fail to stamp out?

For the most part, Dominic Dromgoole’s production takes the side of debauchery. Even before the play has begun, we’re immersed in a loud, bawdy version of Shakespeare’s Vienna, brimming with colour and sin. This is the liberal, licentious society that the Duke is about to take leave of, shirking the challenge of tightening the law’s reins. Instead, that’s the task of his unforgiving deputy Angelo, left in charge in the Duke’s absence. But Angelo’s crackdown is complicated when the pleas of nun-in-training Isabella, whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to death, are more persuasive than she intends. Faced with temptation, the question falls to Angelo: justice or iniquity?

As a debate on justice, mercy and hypocrisy, Measure for Measure is intellectually and rhetorically rich. To be more than a dramatised essay, though, it needs an injection of theatricality, which Dromgoole finds in Vienna’s less exalted citizens. There’s a delicious – if occasionally overstated – excess to the performances of Petra Massey as brothel owner Mistress Overdone and Brendan O’Hea as her unscrupulous client Lucio, who alongside Trevor Fox’s pragmatic pimp Pompey laugh their way around the newly harsh (and, in the case of Dean Nolan’s clowning constable Elbow, fumbling) law enforcement.

The plot’s creaky moments – the willingness of Mariana to leap into bed with the fiancé who jilted her; the convenient offstage death of a pirate who looks remarkably like Claudio – are likewise overcome with Blackadder-esque comic flourish, never pausing over inconsistencies. There are some darker shades, as women are dragged protesting from the streets between scenes, but on the whole this is a remarkably light Measure for Measure, not dwelling on the threats of death and damnation. The scales, the crucifix and the skull, gathered in small tableaux at the far end of Jonathan Fensom’s simple design, remain in the background.

But there’s nothing simple about the characters here. Angelo is no straightforwardly pompous, hypocritical Puritan, and Isabella is far from a saint. As the righteous man undone by desire, Kurt Egyiawan is hard to pin down. At first, his sudden lust for Isabella visibly overwhelms him, but the icy resolve shown in earlier scenes creeps back over him as he covers his tracks. As his unwitting tempter, Mariah Gale’s Isabella is earnest in her protection of her virtue, yet odd moments betray an underlying passion and pride.

And then there’s the Duke, a puppeteer with murky motivations for pulling the strings. It’s a puzzle of a role for any actor. Is this leader a would-be God, testing his subjects while he looks on, or simply a master manipulator out to get what he wants? Dominic Rowan plays him awkward and uncertain, making it up as he goes along, until in the convoluted final scene he steps back into the robes of power with a little too much relish.

There might be no revelation at the heart of Dromgoole’s interpretation, but this is a Measure for Measure that keeps its setting in mind. The Globe is about the groundlings, and this version of the play is about the people – flawed, passionate, pragmatic – who populate it. The problem posed by the play is never quite solved, but it certainly revels in the attempt.

Photo: Marc Brenner.