Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Measure for Measure - Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Director: Jamie Glover
Music: Simon Allen
Reviewer: Lilla Grindlay

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's most perplexing plays. A comedy that often seems more like a tragedy, it is set in a Vienna teeming with corruption and lust.

The play opens with the Duke of Vienna embarking on a mysterious journey, leaving his Puritanical Deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo wastes no time in enforcing the laws against immorality that the Duke has let slip. The jails are soon full of drunks and prostitutes - and amongst the prisoners is a gentleman, Claudio, condemned to death just for getting his fiancée, Juliet, pregnant. Claudio's virtuous sister Isabella pleads with Angelo to save her brother's life, leading to an unexpected turn of events. She inflames Angelo's lust, and he becomes obsessed with sleeping with her. Meanwhile, we soon discover that the Duke's journey is a ruse: he instead remains in the city disguised as a friar, watching to see whether Angelo will become corrupted by new-found power.

Jamie Glover's production transferred the play from Shakespeare's times to the world of Dickens, complete with frock coats, top hats and hooped skirts. A seediness and hypocrisy often lurks beneath the outward respectability of Victorian society, so the interpretation suited the themes of the play perfectly. The set, designed by Andrew D Edwards, was a superbly dark and seedy affair, dry ice and a dampened wall reflecting the sordid underbelly of a Victorian city. Chris Davey's atmospheric lighting fitted the play's mood well, but felt a little too dim at times.

As the play progresses, Angelo's hypocritical and despotic acts increase, as he resorts to more and more desperate measures to possess Isabella. Jason Merrells - a well-known name from television - tapped chillingly into the sense of tortured villainy that underpins this role. The other big name headlining the performance was Alistair McGowan, who brought a sense of engaging complexity to the role of the Duke, though it was when he was playing the lighter lines that the stage really lit up. He used his talents of mimicry to the full to adopt a Scottish accent when in disguise - a little off-putting at the start, though brilliantly sustained.

Emma Lowndes was a passionately virtuous but occasionally laboured Isabella. Her counterpart Deirdre Mullins spoke Shakespeare's lines with a real flexibility and ease, although she was only playing the much smaller role of Angelo's jilted fiancée Mariana.

Measure for Measure may be set in a city that is named as Vienna, but there is little doubt that Shakespeare was reflecting the London he saw around him. The Globe, where many of his plays were performed, stood in the same area as some of the city's most notorious brothels. The lighter side of the play comes when Shakespeare was writing about prostitutes and drunks and a host of colourful characters played these lines expertly for laughs, notably Dona Croll's Mistress Overdone and Robert Goodale's hilariously malopropising policeman Elbow. The most memorable performance of the night was that of Patrick Kennedy who as the louche and engagingly unreliable Lucio was a joy to watch.

Measure for Measure runs at the Yvonne Arnaud until Sat 28th March 09
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