‘Measure for Measure’ is one of those plays that directors tend to get a bit carried away with. Often in a good way: I’m thinking of Joe Hill-Gibbins’s infamous sex doll-strewn Young Vic production from 2015, which is forever etched into my memory, for obvious reasons. This is a play about a lurid sex scandal, and it’s understandable that directors get a bit excited.
But Blanche McIntyre’s excellent new Globe indoor production shows that less can be more when it comes to ‘Measure for Measure’. That’s not to say that it’s particularly minimalist. It’s just not over the top.
Here the 1604 play’s Venetian skullduggery is relocated to what would appear to be ’60s London*, with the Duke – played by Hattie Ladbury – now explicitly female and looking rather like that era’s Queen Elizabeth. That is, she does until she fatefully decides to go undercover in her own kingdom, dressing up as a friar and handing power over to her apparently straight-as-a-die deputy, Angelo (Ashley Zhangazha).
If you don’t know what happens next: Josh Zaré’s Claudio is brought before Angelo, accused (correctly) of getting his girlfriend Juliet pregnant before they’re wed. Angelo duly sentences him to death. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a trainee nun, begs Angelo for her brother’s life. Angelo says he’ll do it if Isabella will yield her own virginity to him.
Most modern Angelos I’ve seen turn out to be massive pervs. The genius of Zhangazha’s take is that his Angelo is actually a pretty boring guy who simply believes it’s fine for him to get his rocks off while condemning others to death for doing exactly the same thing. Rather than go big, McIntyre’s production quietly focuses on the hypocrisy of Angelo’s one-rule-for-us-and-another-for-them approach. I’m not sure it has to be set in the ’60s to work – though there’s definitely a vague echo of the Profumo scandal at play – but pulling it into the modern era definitely focuses the mind on how recognisable Angelo’s behaviour feels.
Of course, ‘Measure for Measure’ was in fact written more than 400 years ago, in a very different time. But McIntyre’s production smartly tackles the various moral complications the play throws up. The first half succeeds because it chooses to take everything very seriously; the second because it lightens up a bit and laughs its way over some of the more complicated moral knots. Eloise Secker is particularly amusing in dual roles as roguish bartender Pompey and Angelo’s Princess Diana-ish ex-fiancée Mariana, and there is a lovely sight gag with a severed head and a coffee mug.
The gender politics are the most fraught bit. Making the Duke female would seem to clarify why she is horrified by Angelo and sympathetic to Isabella. But you can only put so much of a #MeToo spin on a play in which justice is, at best, rendered in a pretty bizarre way. But the very end, in which Ladbury’s hitherto affable posho Duke casually propositions Georgia Landers’s tough but exhausted Isabella is very clever. Traditionally a happy moment, here it’s like a dagger that punctures the good cheer, a sharp sign-off for an exquisitely balanced production.
*It turns out it’s officially set in 1975! To be honest I don’t think this changes how the show lands, so rather than correct it, please enjoy this note pointing out my mistake.