Theatre Review: Measure for Measure at the RSC
Measure for Measure
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2019
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Gregory Doran
Cast: Antony Byrne, Sandy Grierson, Claire Price, James Cooney, Amy Trigg, Lucy Phelps, Joseph Arkley, Tom Dawze, Graeme Brookes, David Ajao, Michael Patrick
RSC Cinema Live - 31 July 2019
Measure for Measure is another one of those 'problem' Shakespeare plays where it can be difficult to establish an appropriate and consistent tone. It seems wildly exaggerated in its humour and in its melodrama, unconvincing in its surface rationale and plot twists that don't inspire a willing suspension of disbelief; but if a director is prepared to explore its content, the rewards in this play can be great. The themes Shakespeare deals with in Measure for Measure are fairly explosive, some of them familiar ones that are examined more deeply here than elsewhere, others that Shakespeare doesn't really touch on anywhere else.
But to bring those out a director really has their work cut out making the twists of the plot and the seeming inconsistencies of character credible and the play's wonderful ending not just satisfying (which it always is) but meaningful and consistent with the drama that has preceded it. Gregory Doran does that by taking its darker themes seriously but also by taking the comedy seriously and presenting it with a bit of an edge. Perhaps that's easier to do now since some of the sexual politics that might once have appeared amusing are now considered not quite so funny.
One shouldn't be surprised that Shakespeare's themes and understanding of human nature still have relevance to a contemporary audience, but Measure for Measure is a play that constantly surprises in how it treats sexual harassment as a serious matter. What is even more amazing is that Shakespeare was not only cognisant of the abuse of male power and its appetite for vice and hypocrisy as a constant, but outspoken about it in the late 16th century and willing to tackle this thorny subject in a play. What it tells us is this is not just that it's something that doesn't go away, but it changes and develops into different vices, finding new outlets at the same time as it hides its true nature.
The play is set in medieval Vienna, where strict laws have been put in place to deal with the growing problem of vice and prostitution on the streets of the great city. The application of the law however is proving to be overly draconian, with even ordinary people being affected. Such is the case of Claudio, who has been arrested for having got his betrothed pregnant outside of marriage, a crime that sees him accused of being a lecher and a bawd and condemned to execution forthwith.
The Duke of Vienna is concerned about the harsh application of the law and goes out in disguise as a Friar to see for himself how things really are on the streets. Without telling his court of his intentions, he appoints his deputy Angelo to stand in his place, with the guiding hand of the councillor Escalus. Angelo proves to be not only over-zealous in his abuse of the spirit of the law, but he also abuses his position to indulge his own vices. When Claudio's sister, a novice nun, comes to plead for clemency for her brother, Angelo says he will only do it if she sleeps with him. And he has no intention of releasing Claudio even if he gets his evil way.
That all sounds fairly serious - and it is - but Shakespeare complicates matters not just with some comic elements where Lucio the dandy and connoisseur of the bawdy houses of the likes of Mistress Overdone, clearly sets himself up for a fall for himself by making all manner of outrageous claims about the Duke to the Duke in disguise as a Friar. There's a danger however that not only is the comedy a distraction from the serious issues raised, but even the matters of sexual abuse seem somewhat over-egged. Could the law really be abused in such a way? Could Angelo really be as one-dimensionally evil as to attempt to rape a nun? Well, in the light of a number of revelations in our own time of the behaviour of those in power, I think we know this is not really as far-fetched as it sounds.
Gregory Doran's idea of updating the work to a more famous and recognisable period of Vienna, a time of great change and turbulence and enlightened modernity around the turn of the twentieth century has merit, but in practice it doesn't contribute a great deal to the RSC's production. It certainly doesn't work with the wide range of regional accents employed and exaggerated by the cast. More often the whole cocktail made me think of Prohibition-era United States, and that actually worked for me extremely well, with even the costumes working in favour of this outlook.
Of rather more relevance to the overall impact of the play however is how the finale is treated. Measure for Measure has one of those deeply satisfying series of twists bring resolution to a number of plot-lines, one that is wonderfully employed by Shakespeare in his late Romances (Cymbeline, Pericles and The Winter's Tale in particular), but it also has what a modern audience might see as a problematic resolution in how the Duke of Vienna marries everyone off - including himself - and re-establishes the traditional family unit as the true vehicle of social order. Like the Taming of the Shrew, it's not impossible to subvert this ending, or indeed consider it Shakespeare's intention to do so, and Gregory Doran's direction of this scene hits home with tremendous impact.
Undoubtedly, the effectiveness of that is also within the performances of Antony Byrne as the Duke of Vienna and Lucy Phelps as Isabella, although I found them both a little overstated. This is essentially a melodrama however and you can't deny the effectiveness of their performances on how events play out in this production. I thought there were good touches from Claire Price's Escalus and Joseph Arkley's Lucio, both of them contributing delightfully to the range of colours in the play. Sandy Grierson's understated villainy also worked well in this context, balancing out the comedy and the melodrama with a darker sinister tone that worked in favour of the very real issues that Measure for Measure raises, helping their significance to today to come across loud and clear.