Theatre review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbons production for the Young Vic is a healthy measure of comedy, darkness and inventiveness

Romola_Garai_in_Measure_for_Measure_at_the_Young_Vic._Photo_by_Keith_Pattison

Romola Garai as Isabella in Measure for Measure

Earlier this summer, I saw the Globe’s Measure for Measurea frolicking, lighthearted period production that negotiated Shakespeare’s problem play with frivolous fun.

Joe Hill-Gibbons Young Vic production, meanwhile, tears up the parchment and thrusts the play’s darker, murkier themes in our faces. The play opens with the characters crawling out from under a pile of inflatable dolls, complete with comedy appendages that are both crude and funny. They get thrown around and kicked about, but hang around the stage for the duration, a constant visual gag and a reminder of Vienna’s (and probably our own) grubbiness. They should have had their own curtain call.

Like the Globe’s, this production manages to be lots of fun, but Hill-Gibbons keeps the murky world of political corruption and sexual power and abuse at the heart of this black comedy. Shakespeare’s bawdier bits are helpfully illustrated with well know gestures, verbal stresses and visual – comically graphic – graphics. At just under two hours, the text has been slashed by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen along with some of the characters (Mistress Overdone is undone – I didn’t miss her). This makes it a far neater story and Isabella’s virginity, and the men (Angelo and the Duke) desperately grabbing at it, is given a keener edge. Romola Garai plays Isabella at full pelt. She’s VERY angry, there is none of the meek novice nun about her and there is no faux happy ending for Garai’s Isabella, it’s made clear she still pays a price for freeing her brother. 

Music plays a central role, although forget about any lutes. There constant hum of haunting music which crescendos at key points adds suspense even if at times it seemed intrusive. And the fact that Mariana – the woman Duke-stand-in Angelo stood-up after her dowry, along with her brother, was lost at sea – is an Alanis Morissette fans seems important, if rather an oddly dated reference.

We see some of the action through a video feed as the characters move ‘backstage’ to an industrial concrete space that doubles as a prison. Sometimes we see the characters on stage and on the screen, the jittery camera work adding a layer of menace and claustrophobia.

All this clever staging does at times threaten to upstage the actors, and, occasionally it does (I was completely distracted during Duke Vincentio’s  speech as he prepared to return from his undercover friar mission because of the kaleidoscope of inflatable dolls’s bits and bobs behind him) but mostly the actors win. Zoning Varla plays the Duke with real gravitas until the end when he returns and seems to unravel under the strain of his odd decisions – he’s along way from Dominic Rowan’s loveable, jovial leader. Paul Ready’s Angelo is a nervy civil servant, creepy and officious while John Mackay as Pompey had a suitable sly menace to him beneath his comedy posturing. And, Garai, Garai is great although I would have enjoyed a little more light and shade in her furious Isabella.

Inventive and sexually charged, this production still had Shakespeare at its core and is as bold and absorbing as his works, done at their best, should be. 

Measure for Measure | Young Vic | Until 14 November

Theatre Review: Measure For Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O'Hea as Lucio in the Globe's Measure for Measure

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O’Hea as Lucio in the Globe’s Measure for Measure

A breezy performance of Shakespeare’s notorious problem play on a hot summer’s day

There are few places I’d rather be on a hot Sunday afternoon that Shakespeare’s Globe. Sure, it’s one part tourist attraction, one part theatre, but that’s partly what makes it such a thrilling place to be. People come here from all over the world to watch a play they may not understand. And everyone loves it, especially the cast who always looks like they’re having the best time even when scowling at helicopters and sweating in their polyester doublets.

In an era of spectacular sets and elaborate immersive theatrical experiences, there’s a real thrill to watching very good actors, dressed in what look like costumes from the RSC reject box, on a bare stage performing works first played on this very spot 500 hundreds years ago. But despite being on the tourist trail, and retreading a London of half a millennium ago, there’s nothing of the museum about the Globe. It pulses with more life than many other London theatres,  and feels fresher than a lot of them too.

There is often something of the pantomime about Globe performances (and I don’t mean that as a criticism) and Measure For Measure, artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s swansong for the Globe, is no exception.

Measure For Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem play. Not only does it not fall neatly into the comedy bracket it’s assigned to, but the plot is nuts. For those that don’t know *Sparknotes klaxon* Duke Vincentio, fed up with the debauchery  in his city of Vienna pretends to leave town (he actually temporarily dresses as a Friar to watch the town’s antics in disguise. Because, Shakespeare)  and leaves his very uptight deputy, Angelo in charge. Angelo is not standing for any of this naughty nonsense and immediately stamps his authority by sentencing Claudio, a young man who has got his girlfriend Juliet pregnant, to death. *Gasp*.

Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is unrelentingly virtuous and pretty – as Vincentio as the Friar observes, “the hand that hath made you fair hath made you good” – a combination that Angelo can’t resist. He promises to release Claudio if Isabella gives up her virginity to him. But, fear not, the Duke/Friar is on hand to hatch a cunning plan which won’t involve Isabella having to sleep with Angelo nor Claudio dying.

Alongside the WTF plot and the dark vein of cynicism that Shakespearean spins through the text, Measure for Measure is a study of patriarchal authority, of male manipulation in a world where women are a commodity, useful only for their bodies which, if they are not going to offer up to men at a price, will have to be blackmailed into it. Obviously this was largely how women were viewed in the early 17th century, and indeed are all too commonly seen today, but it can be uneasy viewing at times.

Dromgoole neatly sidesteps the play’s bigger issues without being flippant and pulls off a great production with plenty of proper hearty laughs (rather than smug English grad Shakespeare guffaws). And there is a happy ending of sorts (although, honestly, if Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio/the Friar wasn’t so charming, I would join the rest of the world in not filing this ending under ‘happy’).

Rowan’s Duke/Friar is a delight among a cast not short on great performances. Globe regular, Brendan O’Hea, who plays flamboyant Lucio, threatens to steal the show, but is given a run for his money by a quick-witted Trevor Fox as Pompey (full marks for the improv when catching a groundling reading the text) and Mariah Gale as an emotional and compassionate Isabella (a tricky feat in a character so defined by her religious doctrine).

All tremendous fun, if not one of the problem play purists (if such a thing exists).

Measure For Measure | Shakespeare’s Globe | Until 17 October 2015