Measure For Measure @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Simon McBurney
Mike Grady
Angus Wright
Ajay Naidu
Clive Mendus
Tamzin Griffin
Richard Katz
Ben Meyjes
Craig Parkinson
Steven Crossley
Naomi Frederick
Katie Jones
Kostas Philippoglou
Jamie Bradley
Anamaria Marinca
Johannes Flaschberger

directed by
Simon McBurney

The Complicite production of Measure For Measure was first performed at the National Theatre in 2004 to almost unanimous critical acclaim. Under the direction of Simon McBurney, it was originally staged in the large space of the Olivier, and now, after a world tour, this complex, moral tale returns to the Lyttleton. Has it retained its potency?

The answer is no, not completely.

Performed at a heady pace for an uninterrupted 135 minutes, this Measure despite its clever sets and assured performances contains as many flaws as triumphs.

The Duke of Vienna, played ably by Simon McBurney himself, has left his second in command Angelo (now played by Angus Wright) to deputise in his absence. But instead of going abroad, as he has told everyone, he walks the streets of Vienna observing his people. Angelo’s disgust at the corruption of the city, in particular the booming trade for pimps and whores, leads him to resurrect some ancient and draconian laws.

The penalties of this are felt by Claudio – after his mistress Juliet is found to be pregnant, he is sentenced to death. So Claudio asks his sister Isabella to visit Angelo and plead for his life.

Wright plays the morally upright Angelo as equal parts civil servant, puritan and sadist. Long-limbed and grey-suited, his Angelo is an outwardly buttoned-up, morally righteous but cold bureaucrat. His terror at his own erection after his first interview with Isabella and subsequent self-harming with a razor, show us the sadism and perversion behind the mask; there is something of the spider of him in these scenes, as he displays a kind of terrified malevolence at what Isabella has awoken in him.

Naomi Frederick has the unenviable task of portraying Isabella, a woman tugged in all directions. While she is desperate to save her brother’s life, she is appalled at the bargain Angelo suggests – her brother’s life for her virginity. She gives plausibility to the line: ” O, were it but my life, I’d throw it down for your deliverance.”

Simon Mc Burney’s interpretation of the Duke however is an odd one; he plays him as an old, seedy man, dressed in uniform who, in the end, displays some of the same sadism and pleasure in Isabella’s distress as Angelo did.

Unfortunatly the sheer speed of the delivery does no one any favours in this production; Angelo comes far too quickly to the decision to bargain with Isabella, and some of the subtlety of Isabella and Claudio’s argument in the middle of the play are lost.

In contrast, the design of the production is very successful, with props and sound effects cleverly simulating a Guantanomo bay situation – the sight of the prisoners clad in their orange jumpsuits is particularly striking. Monitors dotted around the stage have multiple uses, at one point televising the trial, at another displaying CCTV images of the jail – a picture of George Bush even appears on them at one point, drawing a loud roar from the Lyttleton audience.

In itself Measure for Measure is a very difficult play for modern audiences, there are no definitive answers to the moral questions it poses. Complicite have created a dark, interesting, thought provoking, if not completely successful production. Not having seen it in its first incarnation I can’t fully compare, but the impact of the current production is still considerable.

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