Romola Garai shines in a splendidly smutty Shakespeare that's not for the easily offended
Director Joe Hill-Gibbins is the horny mad scientist of the theatre world: he takes classic plays, smashes them to smithereens, smears them in smut, then rebuilds them in fantastical, hysterical forms.
He is the perfect director to tackle Shakespeare’s problematic ‘Measure for Measure’, set in a seedy Vienna in which the Duke has absconded, leaving his puritanical deputy Angelo to clamp down with sharia-like ferocity on public sexual morality. Angelo condemns the well-liked Claudio to death for fathering a child outside of wedlock; but when Claudio’s beautiful nun sister Isabella pleads for his life, the power-crazed Angelo demands her virginity as the price.
Joe Hill-Gibbins responds to this in the most Joe Hill-Gibbins way possible: by cutting about an hour out of the play, and almost entirely filling Miriam Buether’s set with blow-up sex dolls. Seriously: there must be about 40 of the things littering the stage. They are, for the most part, hilarious, an absurd mound of plastic faux-flesh that the Viennese must awkwardly negotiate, eventually shovelling them away to a back room that’s relayed to the stage by camera. The dolls are the perfect visual metaphor for the impossibility of denying something as fundamental as sex. They are also just inherently funny, regardless of meaning, as are many of Hill-Gibbins’s innovations, most notably a side-splittingly funny and kiiiiiind of unnecessary sequence paying glorious homage to early ’90s hip hop videos.
Oh, and there are also some actors doing some Shakespeare. They’re pretty good, too. In this murky Vienna almost everyone is compromised, from Zubin Varla’s sweaty, hysterical Duke Vincentio and Paul Ready’s’s Angelo – a dull functionary unable to cope with absolute power – to Ivanno Jeremiah’s hard-partying Claudio, who pounces selfishly on the possibility of his sister yielding her maidenhead. It is only Romola Garai’s excellent Isabella who rises above all this: unlike the others, she seems to genuinely have no suppressed sexual desires. She is her own woman through and through, and she speaks with a stern, unadorned, Old Testament power that cuts through the hypocritical intrigues of the men around her.
Of the characters that have survived Hill-Gibbins’s edit, most are interesting; not all mesh with the production as a whole; sometimes the production as a whole stalls as a weird visual gag gets in the way of the Shakespeare, or the Shakespeare gets in the way of a weird gag. But this ‘Measure for Measure’ works, a madcap satire on the impossibility of denying sex. Joe Hill-Gibbins throws a lot of things at the wall – many unmentionable in a family publication – and most of them stick.