One of the best things about Shakespeare is his endless capacity to surprise you. This is partly because he simply wrote so much: they may be more than four centuries old, but his plays still have the capacity to hit us afresh – particularly if, like Measure for Measure, they lurk quietly amidst his collected works, seldom elbowing their way past the endless Macbeths, Lears, Hamlets and many Henrys to reach the modern stage. It’s exciting to encounter an unfamiliar play by this masterful hand, and RoughCast’s admirably clear, pacy production of this rarely-performed gem makes us wonder why Measure for Measure isn’t allowed out more often. It’s certainly a play for our very moment, whose plot turns on a chilling sexual power-play in which the intended victim, a young convent Novice, is laughed aside when she tries to protest against a statesman’s loathed advances: “Who will believe thee? …my place i’ the state, Will so your accusation overweigh, That you shall stifle in your own report…” The helplessness of innocent virtue against callous power feels even brutally relevant today: #metoo. We may hope we are moving away from a society in which “Some rise by sin, others by virtue fall,” but Measure for Measure shows us that this distasteful problem has been around for centuries, and needs extreme, dynamic and collective social action to be rooted out for good. It also points to Shakespeare’s exceptional humanism, his extraordinary, unparalleled ability to perceive and dramatise injustice, which amounts here to far-sighted moral leadership, born of intense sympathy with the other.
Floating between tragedy, farce, comedy and proto-Enlightenment political satire, Measure for Measure brings us darkness and jokes, danger and puns, laughter and shock. It’s not exactly a comedy, although it certainly has some extremely funny bits; and it’s not quite a tragedy either, though characters sail pretty close to despair at times. While its themes – the conundrum of power, the true nature of love, the balance of trust and freedom in any sexual interaction – plug directly into Shakespeare’s other works, this play has a particular atmosphere all its own, rebelliously refusing to be pigeonholed into one genre, doing nothing expected, and evoking both terror and tenderness along the way. Director Paul Baker has pruned Shakespeare’s text energetically for RoughCast’s unhesitating, punchy and appealing production, which uses minimalist staging (just the odd prop or two), vaguely contemporary dress, and even well-chosen scraps of pop music to act as narrative signposts between scenes which add to the intense, yet insouciant mood of the whole. Baker’s excellent programme notes point out key words and phrases to watch out for – a nice touch.
Set in Vienna, Measure for Measure traces the consequences of a sudden, deliberate leave of absence by Duke Vincentio (a measured, engaging and nicely poised Mark Burridge), who puts his supposedly irreproachable deputy, Angelo, in charge of the city. The Duke secretly stays on, disguised as a friar, in order to spy on Angelo’s true reaction to power: surrounded by good people like the honourable and compassionate Escalus (an urbane Keith Charman) and a kind, practical Provost (a mellifluous Pat Parris), Peter Long’s contained, crisp Angelo seems set fair to enforce Vienna’s old laws with renewed strictness and cold, unimpeachable vigour on a cheerfully licentious public. He decides to make an immediate scapegoat of young Claudio (a wonderfully clear, emotive Ben Wilmott), who has made his fiancée Juliet (affectingly portrayed by Anna Brinkley) pregnant in advance of their intended marriage. The fully enforceable punishment for this sexual incontinence is death; to the ribald astonishment of local pimp Pompey Bum (a brilliantly comic Tim Hall) and everyone else in Vienna, Angelo ordains this is actually going to result in a genuine execution: the party is as resoundingly over as if the Taliban turned up to police the Prince of Wales Road one Saturday night. Disbelief and horror steadily spread.
Claudio’s beautiful sister Isabella, preparing for life as a nun, is persuaded by the jaunty old rake Lucio (a jocular, nicely catty Simon Evans) to go to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life in person. Ironically, it is Isabella’s unassailable purity which stirs up Angelo’s latent propensity to vice, resulting in the gross proposition she would rather die than accept. Cathy Wilson’s breathy Isabella can seem so otherworldly as to be a little disconnected at times, but her innocent vulnerability in contrast to the scheming Angelo stands out, as does her desperate, immediate trust in the Duke’s friar disguise as he explains how to avoid both degradation and disaster – and restore a few other wrongs at the same time…
Baker’s large cast generally rise well to the play’s varied challenges, with strong performances even in smaller roles: Penny Martin as Mistress Overdone and the lovelorn Mariana – she of the moated grange (Tennyson) fame; Charles Ohsten as two smug young libertines; Bob Good sonorous and convincing as kind Friar Peter and unrepentant drunk Barnardine; and a superb comic hangman, Elbow, in the best tradition of Hamlet’s Gravedigger or Macbeth’s Porter, from Lawrie Hammond, though both Barnardine and Tim Hall’s Pompey give Elbow a good run for his money in terms of comic value. Bold, brash and not a little surprising throughout, Measure for Measure makes for a seriously entertaining, occasionally silly, and ultimately thought-provoking evening.