21 March 2010

Measure for Measure - Almeida Theatre, Saturday 20th March 2010

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, makes it known that he intends to leave the city on a diplomatic mission. He leaves the government in the hands of a strict judge, Angelo. Under the Duke's government, the city's harsh laws against fornication have been laxly enforced, but Angelo, who later reveals himself as a hypocrite is known to be a hard-liner on matters of sexual immorality.

Claudio, a young nobleman, is betrothed to Juliet; having put off their wedding, he makes her pregnant before wedlock. For this act of fornication he is punished by Angelo. Although he is willing to marry her, he is sentenced to death. Claudio's friend Lucio visits Claudio's sister Isabella, a postulant nun, and asks her to intercede with Angelo on Claudio's behalf.

Isabella obtains an audience with Angelo, and pleads to him for mercy. Over the course of two scenes between Angelo and Isabella, it becomes clear that he harbours lustful thoughts for her, and he eventually offers her a deal: he will spare Claudio's life if Isabella will yield him her virginity. Isabella refuses, but she also realises that (due to Angelo's austere reputation) she will not be believed if she makes a public accusation against him. Instead she visits her brother in prison, and counsels him to prepare himself for death. Claudio vehemently begs Isabella to save his life, but Isabella refuses.

The Duke has not in fact left the city, but remains there disguised as a friar, in order to spy on his city's affairs, and especially the actions of Angelo. In his guise as a friar he befriends Isabella and arranges two tricks to thwart the evil intentions of Angelo:

First, a "bed trick" is arranged. Angelo has previously refused to fulfill the betrothal binding him to Mariana, because her dowry was lost at sea. Isabella sends word to Angelo that she has decided to submit to him, making it a condition of their meeting that it occurs in perfect darkness and silence. In fact, Mariana agrees to take Isabella's place, and she has sex with Angelo, although he continues to believe he has enjoyed Isabella. (In some interpretations of the law, this constitutes consummation of their betrothal, and so marriage.)

Contrary to expectation, Angelo goes back on his word, sending a message to the prison that he wishes to see Claudio's head, which necessitates the "head trick." The Duke first attempts to arrange the execution of another prisoner whose head can be sent instead of Claudio's. However, the villain Barnardine refuses to be executed in his current drunken state. As luck would have it, however, a pirate named Ragozine, of similar appearance to Claudio, has recently died of a fever, so his head is sent to Angelo instead.

This main plot concludes with the 'return' to Vienna of the Duke in his own person. Isabella and Mariana publicly petition him, and he hears their claims against Angelo. which Angelo smoothly denies. As the scene develops, it appears Friar Lodowick will be blamed for the 'false' accusations leveled against Angelo. The Duke leaves Angelo to be judge of the cause against Lodowick, but returns in disguise moments later when Lodowick is summoned. Eventually the friar reveals himself to be the duke, thereby exposing Angelo as a liar and Isabella and Mariana as truthful. He proposes that Angelo be executed—with his estate going to Mariana as her new dowry, "to buy you a better husband". Mariana pleads for Angelo's life, even enlisting the aid of Isabella (who is not yet aware her brother Claudio is still living). Heeding the petition of the two women, the Duke is merciful to Angelo, but compels him to marry Mariana. The Duke then proposes marriage to Isabella.

The Duke of Vienna – Ben Miles
Escalus – David Killick
Angelo – Rory Kinnear
Lucio – Lloyd Hutchinson
Claudio – Emun Elliott
Isabella – Anna Maxwell Martin

Creative team:
Director – Michael Attenborough
Design – Lez Brotherston
Lighting – David Hersey
Music – Stephen Warbeck

You can always tell when spring is coming; the bus drivers turn the heating on and the theatres crank up the air conditioning. Whether the wind whistling round my feet last night at the Almeida was meant to simulate the icy gusts of a Viennese winter I don’t know, but by the time the curtain came down, radio contact with my calves was intermittent and my feet hadn’t been heard from for at least an hour, making me think that my knees should be sending out a St. Bernard with a barrel containing some sort of embrocation in search of them. Fortunately they were discovered an hour or so later huddling up to my ankles, blue with cold and pleading faintly for Kendal Mint Cake.

Up on stage, a group of intrepid individuals had been tackling Mount Measure For Measure, one of the more remote and inaccessible peaks of the Shakespearean range. Most of them managed to come through the ordeal unscathed to receive a warm welcome back from the audience at base camp. However, a few of the company died in the lower foothills and spent the rest of the evening being dragged along as dead weights. They will be defrosted and rubbed vigorously in the hope of restoring some kind of circulation as every alpine expedition needs its sherpas.

Foremost among our intrepid band of climbers was Rory Kinnear, well on his way to becoming the Sir Edmund Hilary of Mount Shakespeare. Does this man ever put a foot wrong? Not if this performance is anything to go by – once again he almost literally wiped the stage with the rest of the cast, playing the eminently nasty Angelo as a man promoted well above his capacity who becomes a clock-watching Jobsworth and making everyone else’s life a misery. Such is the power wielded by petty administrators. His Sherpa Tensing was Anna Maxwell Martin’s Isabella, played with a little bit too much fire in her belly for my total approval. I think that part of the reason Angelo desires Isabella is that she is cool, remote and inaccessible (would it be stretching the mountaineering simile too far to describe Angelo as Ronald Coleman and Isabella as Shangri-La?). Her silent disdain at the Duke’s offer of marriage, communicated in complete bodily stillness and totally through her face was thrilling, which shows that intensity doesn’t have to be loud.

Quite why Isabella bothers with trying to save Emun Elliott’s Claudio is beyond me; he is by far the weakest link in this production. I don’t know whether he is trying to portray Claudio as some kind of minor, uncaring aristo with a bad haircut but his habits of over-enunciation (constantly pronouncing “liberty” as “libertiah”) and flailing his arms about like a sufferer of St. Vitus’ Dance while speaking really got my goat. Learn the value of stillness, my child, and enlightenment shall truly be yours.
The cold, chilly atmosphere of Vienna is nicely highlighted by the austerity of the set and the very limited colour range of the costumes (modern dress – boooo!). I do hate it when Old Master paintings are used as major parts of the scenery and there’s nothing in the programme to explain what they are; I think it was the Rape of The Sabine Women by someone or other, which would fit in nicely with the theme of the play. Perhaps one is supposed to know these things when visiting the Almeida. I liked the fact that that Angelo’s cold efficiency was shown by the fact that he had removed all the untidy piles of paperwork from the Duke’s desk when it became his own, and that his vanity was highlighted by the replacement of his specs with contact lenses before his second interview with Isabella. Clever directorial touches.
Measure for Measure is an inherently silly story based around the fact that nobody seems to recognise their Duke just because he happens to change into a monk’s habit. There is also no legal foundation for the exposition of the plot as Angelo’s attempt at rape isn’t witnessed by anyone other than the accused and the accuser. There’s no proof, only Isabella’s say-so. Thankfully there is no attempt at showing the daft “bed trick” ploy which is also used in All’s Well That Ends Well. The substitution of the decapitated head is a bit hard to swallow as well, and the low comedy character of Elbow once again fails to work. When you look at it, a lot of Shakespeare is awful tosh. But I enjoyed this production and noticed for the first time some of the play’s inherent flaws (including the fact that the Duke is eventually seen as being just as vile as Angelo) and that two pairs of socks should be worn at all times at the Almeida. My next two reviews will be coming direct from the English Countryside, so let us hope its warmer there.

What the critics thought:




Today's video offering is from the 1979 BBC TV version of the play; I particularly like the restrained performance by Kate Nelligan as Isabella.

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