Theatre review: The RSC's Measure for Measure on DVD
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. Gregory Doran's idea of updating the to Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century for the 2019 RSC production has some merit, but the modernity of the play and its relevance is apparent in any setting.
We expect Shakespeare's view of human nature to still be relevant and true, but it's still astonishing how relevant and outspoken a play written in 1604 proves to be on the #MeToo subject of the abuse of male power against women, as well as the larger political question of systematic corruption, vice and hypocrisy. There's a danger however that some of the comedy can be a distraction from the serious issues raised, and that even the matters of sexual abuse seem somewhat unrealistic. 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 direction is somewhat heavy handed but so too is Shakespeare's drama to some extent and Doran at least bears that out in expressing the conflicts of the spirit and the body in each of the characters, a conflict that runs deep and has no easy resolution. That very much comes through in the problematic finale where the Duke of Vienna marries everyone off - including himself - as a rather summary way of reestablishing order through restoration of the family unit. Recognising that just as many abuses of power can take place between a husband and wife, Doran makes this resolution not quite as clear-cut as it seems. Even before this, the Duke is played in such a way that we have our doubts about his motivations and behaviour, and Doran's direction of this scene at least hits home with tremendous impact.
Undoubtedly, the performances have a part to play in the effectiveness of this, although I personally found the acting of Antony Byrne as the Duke of Vienna and Lucy Phelps as Isabella more than 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. There are 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 works well in this context, balancing out the comedy and the melodrama with a darker sinister tone that works in favour of the very real issues that Measure for Measure raises, helping their significance to today to come across loud and clear.
Opus Arte's region-free DVD of the 2019 RSC Measure for Measure looks fine and has no real issues other than the low resolution of the format, so it appears a little soft and lacking in true colour definition. There are no real problems with that however or the Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks which are clear and resonant. English subtitles are provided which might come in handy given the range of regional accents employed and exaggerated here. The extras include the usual RSC interviews, a look at the historical background of the play and what it says about James I, and there's also a full-length director’s commentary. The booklet contains an essay by Ewan Fernie that takes an interesting view of Angelo not as a potential rapist or one who abuses his power for his lusts but as someone conflicted by an unrealistic overly-puritanical streak.