Phil Willmott usually trades in obscure and contested Shakespeares, making decent cases for plays dismissed as the Bard on a bad day.
There’s no hiding behind ‘Measure for Measure’. Next to ‘King John’ or – God help us – last year’s Elizabethan dud ‘Fair Em’, it looks downright populist, but its knotty, plotty complexity and moral ambiguity make it a big ask. Wilmott straightens out the story’s skeleton, but can’t flesh it out with nuance or insight.
He sets it in a woozy Weimar wonderland. You expect Sally Bowles herself to burst out of Mistress Overdone’s brothel, so, with the Duke (Nicholas Osmond) taking an impulsive sabbatical, his do-good deputy Angelo steps in to clean up the streets.
Paul Critoph’s Angelo is earnest, overweight and unworldly; a bit prudish, sure, but given population-wide prostitution, not unreasonably so. Even when he jumps Isabella (Daisy Ward), a virginal woman campaigning against her brother Claudio’s impending execution, you still feel slightly sorry for him. He seems less a hypocrite, than a human trying his best and momentarily losing control.
Critoph has a natural ability to spin verse into sense, but he only leads half of the play. The rest belongs to Osmond and Ward, who versify by rote and rhythm. Their Duke-Isabella scenes have nothing at stake. Osmond’s chipper as a man on vacation, while Ward pleads for her brother’s life like an undergraduate taking a viva: chuffed with her case, but untouched by emotion.
Despite some characterful cameos, all this leaves ‘Measure’ muddied and lopsided. When you’re rooting for the antagonist, something’s amiss.
By Matt Trueman