‘Measure for Measure’ review

Theatre, Shakespeare
3 out of 5 stars
Measure for Measure, RSC, 2019
© Helen Maybanks

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Ravishing but safe RSC take on Shakespeare’s play about sex, power and surveillance in the Viennese court

‘Measure for Measure’ is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. But this description eclipses a much bigger question. The issue with ‘Measure for Measure’ isn’t whether it’s comedy or tragedy, or some combination of the two, but simply what the hell this play is about, full stop. 

The plot, simplified, goes like this: Claudio is sentenced to death. His sister Isabella, a nun, goes to the Deputy, Angelo, to plead for his life. Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. She refuses and returns to Claudio who suggests that, umm, maybe it would be good if she did have sex with Angelo because he’d quite like to live. She still refuses, but subsequently agrees to a plan where another woman, Mariana (who happens to have been previously engaged to Angelo) will disguise herself as Isabella and go to bed with Angelo. And then some more reveals happen and it all ends, maybe happily and maybe not.

It’s the sort of plot that must have always seemed weird, even when Shakespeare wrote it 400 years ago (although the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artists were fans). Gregory Doran’s production re-locates it to turn-of-the-century Vienna, a world of waltzes, wine and really, really beautiful coats. It’s a convincing choice: the austere ecclesiastical world of Isabella (Lucy Phelps) set against cavorting, boisterous city life. 

The real highlights are the scenes involving Isabella and Sandy Grierson’s super-slimy Angelo, a repressed reptile of a man ripe for a turn on Freud’s couch. Their exchanges have obvious #MeToo resonances, but it’s the specifics of their relationship that are actually more interesting than sweeping historical or political parallels. 

But the disappointing thing is that we don’t get more time to unpick it – and that’s partly Shakespeare’s fault for doing his usual trick of cushioning all the serious bits with big bawdy comedy numbers. This truly odd play is crying out for a director to really get under its skin, and unfortunately, this goes at it a little too safe.

By: Rosemary Waugh



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