Shakespeare scholars describe Measure for Measure as a problem play – too light to be a tragedy but too serious to be a comedy. The ambiguity gives directors license to colour the play how they see fit. For the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production – now playing at the Marlowe, Gregory Doran has chosen to emphasise the comic elements of the play and the result is a bawdy delight that nevertheless raises many profound questions.
The play follows the strange antics of Vincentio, Duke of Vienna – played here with great charm by Antony Byrne. He has decided to hand over the reins of government to his severe deputy, Angelo. The Duke’s motives here are more complicated than a simple desire to escape public life in the vein of Harry and Meghan. For one thing, he does not leave Vienna at all but instead disguises himself as a Friar, at first observing and then meddling in events as they play out in his absence.
The Duke’s voyeurism is echoed in the striking set design, which includes a large half-silvered mirror that reflects the events onstage but, as the lights dim reveal the eavesdropping Duke. The Duke is interested in how Angelo will respond to his new position of authority – “hence shall we see, if power change purpose” – and how, in particular, he will deal with the decline in public morality for which the Duke feels responsible.
The conceit is strange even by Shakespeare’s standards, but it starts to make sense when placed in historical context. Shakespeare wrote the play between 1603 and 1604, just after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Talk of political transition would have been as inescapable as talk of Brexit is today. No doubt, there was uncertainty how the new King would interpret his role as head of the Church, and by extension, as defender of public morality. The theatre had been a frequent target of Puritan attacks, but Elizabeth had moderated their influence – the question as to whether James would be so liberal no doubt occupied Shakespeare a great deal.
That the play was born of such particular historical circumstance makes it no less relevant to other times and places. There is something serendipitous about the setting of the play in Vienna. On account of the work of Freud and Jung, the city has become synonymous with the analysis of man’s darkest desires and perversions – the very kind of analysis to which the Duke is subjecting the unwitting Angelo. This production cleverly draws our attention to the link by setting the play in a fin-de-siecle Vienna full of licentious cads and brothels whose characters and costumes echo the quasi-pornographic work of that other great Viennese sexual obsessive, Egon Schiele.
Viewed in this light, the character of Angelo becomes creepily reminiscent of another 20th century trope – the fascist demagogue. Again, the comparison is emphasised by costume and casting with Sandy Grierson bringing subtle menace to the character of Angelo
The test of character hoped for by the duke arrives in the form of the young novice Isabella – played with great intensity by Lucy Phelps -, whose brother, Claudio, has fallen foul of Angelo’s strict application of the legal code. She appeals to Angelo to show her brother leniency. Angelo initially refuses but is impressed by and attracted to the young novice – “She speaks, and ’tis, Such sense, that my sense breeds with it”. Eventually he agrees to release Claudio but only if the young novice will sleep with him.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare portrays the supposed moraliser as the arch corrupter. As noted before, the Puritans were avowed opponents of the Elizabethan theatre and the nuanced stories it was telling. But one cannot help also seeing in the play a critique of male power and its use of women that remains as relevant today as it ever was. After Angelo has made his offer, the horrified Isabella turns to the audience and asks despairingly “To whom should I complain?”. Though written some 400 years before, it is a question that finds a response in the contemporary demands of the #metoo campaign.
The great merit of this production is that it is able to deal with these issues without losing comic charm and vigour. There are beautiful music interludes to season the show and spirit of levity is maintained by the peripheral cast of rogues and ne’erdowells – the sort of characters that would have filled Shakespeare’s London. And for whom you can’t help feeling that Shakespeare had a great fondness; characters like Pompey– played here with great verve by David Ajao- or the malodorous convict Barnardine. And special mention too for Michael Patrick’s Elbow – the constable whose capacity to say just the wrong thing stole the show for me.