Historically, productions of Measure for Measure have highlighted the corruptions of their time. Keith Hack’s 1974 production, for example, came out in the midst of Watergate and Vietnam – and it played on this. In taking on Shakespeare’s “problem play” in 2019, Director Gregory Doran has done something ingenious. Sleazy men in power are at every turn; they say, “who will believe you?” when women threaten to report them. Measure for Measure is the early-modern play that predicted #MeToo four hundred years before Twitter.
A newly reactionary nation is a strange setting for a comedy; even for a black comedy, this is bleak stuff. The setting has been updated to what looks like an early 20th century eastern-European fascist state. It is gloomy and oppressive, which makes the dark-suited lawmen all the more threatening, who drag along prisoners by their chains. It is strange to see this setting used, however – surely it would have been more effective to use a modern setting. Let’s say, for example, 21st century United States Congress – where Mike Pence has said that he won’t be alone in a room with any woman other than his wife. In a modern-day office setting, the tensions of power wouldn’t only be more subtle, but more unnerving and relevant. While the fascist setting is atmospheric – the steam from the trains being especially effective – it would have been scarier seeing Angelo in a modern suit and tie.
Because Sandy Grierson plays a masterful Angelo here. Having played Faustus in the past, it’s easy to see where he’s gained the ability to play an overthinking, self-deluding man who’s hungry for power. Faustus’ opening soliloquy presents us with a man who deceives himself into thinking he’s doing the right thing in greedily hunting for knowledge and power. And so too does Angelo – as he justifies asking Isabella for sex, in return for saving her brother’s life. In his soliloquy towards the end of the first act, he asks himself; “the tempter or the tempted, who sins more?” By shifting the blame to her – who has done nothing to lead him on – he clutches at straws to justify his actions. Grierson shows how ridiculous his moral rationalisations are by acting terrified and on-edge throughout; the fact that he knows deep down that he’s wrong makes it all the more creepy. If he’d played Angelo as a sleazy sociopath, it would be easier to hate him – but this way, he’s just pathetic.
In fact, all the men in the play seem to be quite pathetic. Claudio, ashamedly, wants his sister to sleep with Angelo because he’s terrified of dying. “To die we go we know not where!” he anxiously says to Isabella (a line that, I bet, didn’t quite make the cut for Hamlet, but the Bard was determined to use it somewhere). And the Duke – played hilariously by Antony Byrne – is supposed to be the wise sage of the play, but clumsily proposes to Isabella at the end, despite knowing she’s in the process of becoming a nun. She ignores him, which is all the more satisfying.
Lucy Phelps plays Isabella, and she does a brilliant job of conveying the confusion and helplessness of her character – under the thumb of these hapless men. Her comic timing is spot-on, too – I already knew she was funny after seeing her as Rosalind in As You Like It earlier this year.
The comic relief from other performers is very welcome too, because despite being classed as a “comedy” the subject matter is heavy, especially in the zeitgeist of today. David Ajao plays a funny Pompi, who interacts with the audience – curiously handing down pieces of paper. And Lucio, played by Joseph Arkley, acts like a true cad from the 20s – he seemed to be channelling the spirit of Terry Thomas.
There wasn’t actually a weak link in the cast, and the whole thing was perfectly put together. It did, however, leave me with an urge to see a modern-day set Measure for Measure.