'Measure for Measure' is one of Shakespeare’s 'problem' plays - if that's an appropriate way to describe it. Although most often pigeon-holed as a comedy, it's not exactly full of jokes, and is often more appropriately defined as a tragi-comedy. Its central themes cover mercy and justice, deceit, mistaken identity (always a favourite Shakespearian device), and poses a considerable number of important moral and social questions without providing any real answers.
Vincentio, Duke of Vienna decides (for reasons which are never explained) to take a short sabbatical from his ducal responsibilities. Before departing in the ducal 'chopper ' (complete with deafening engine noise and brilliant lights) he hands the reigns of power to his loyal and trusted sidekick, Angelo (Angus Wright). No sooner is the Duke airborne than the puritanical Angelo sets about sorting out some of the permissive and promiscuous behaviour which is rife in the duchy.
First up for a dose of Angelo's swift justice is Claudio who's got his girlfriend pregnant prior to the nuptials, and is summarily sentenced to death (a somewhat harsh sentence, even by Elizabethan or Jacobean standards). Claudio asks his sister, Isabella, to plead with Lord Angelo for his life. Angelo finds himself sexually aroused by Isabella (who happens to be a novice in a local nunnery) and offers to save her brother's life, if she will have sex with him. Isabella is horrified. However, the Duke is on hand in disguise as a monk to manipulate events and manages to save Claudio and expose Angelo's hypocrisy.
This production of 'Measure for Measure' caused something of a stir when it premiered at the National Theatre in May 2004. Produced jointly by the National Theatre and Complicite, it returns after a tour which took in Europe and India. Some recasting has been effected since the original version - most notable is that the play's director, Simon McBurney, now takes the lead as Duke of Vienna.
Almost literally romping through the script, 'Measure for Measure' runs at a blistering pace and without the benefit of an interval to pause for breath. But given that almost all of the scenes 'flow' into and blend with each other (the actors for new scenes start appearing on stage before the previous scene ends) it would have broken the overall progression to break the play for an interval.
Designer Tom Pye, presents an austere, bare, sloping acting area, with shallow steps at either side from which video cameras capture the action and transmit it to a number of overhead screens. This video, together with lighting that has a severe, steely edge to it and echoing sound effects, lends the whole production a kind of techno, 'Big Brother' feel to it. Not only does it connect with the intrusive TV show 'Big Brother' which monitors housemates continually through video, but there are also similarities with the original idea of 'Big Brother' found in George Orwell's novel, '1984'. And with images of George Bush projected onto the background, secret-service types with sunglasses to guard a Duke who wears military uniform, this is a vision of 'Measure for Measure' not only brought bang-up-to-date, but also with the trappings of military dictatorship, rather than benevolent governance.
I think the pace of the production causes one or two of the actors to rush or garble their lines a little, but overall it’s well acted, though not exceptional. Ajay Naidu’s comic timing and ill-considered cockiness was certainly effective as Lucio, and Anamaria Marinca’s Mariana moved the audience with her (real) tears as she pleaded for Angelo’s life.
Simon McBurney obviously knows his production well, but that alone is not sufficient justification for him taking the lead. In some ways, it's not proved a totally satisfactory decision because his voice is rather weak and lacks the essential authority and power, particularly when it needs to rise above the noise of helicopter engines and other sound effects. And he seemed too old to be offering his hand in marriage to Isabella at the end of the play. Admittedly, this proposal is always a tricky element to handle because it's a bolt out of the blue, and mimics Angelo's behaviour towards Isabella earlier on, rather than being a ‘loving’ gesture.
Well-received on its first airing in 2004, this pretty radical re-think of 'Measure for Measure' is both enjoyable and thought-provoking. It’s dynamic pace certainly makes it more intriguing and stimulating than many other productions I’ve seen. But its very difference also leaves one questioning the rationale of the approach which McBurney and his team have adopted. In a way, they’ve provided no answers to the contentious questions which Shakespeare’s story provokes, and in doing it this way, they’ve introduced a whole lot more of their own.
Production photo by Robbie Jack