Novelty is only in request . . . There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but security enough to make fellowship accursed.
In this play the city of Vienna is a hotbed of lechery. Almost literally. The genial Duke has not enforced the severe laws against fornication - he likes to be liked - but something has to be done. Why not absent himself and put the city in the hands of his incorruptible deputy? The aptly-named Angelo, an unbending puritan, will do the job and take the heat off the Duke. He does so with a will, shutting down the brothels, imprisoning pimps and bawds and, as an example to all, he sentences young Claudio to death for adultery. Claudio's sister, about to take her nun's vows, comes to plead for his life. She is eloquent and, as so often happens in Shakespeare, eloquence leads to disaster.
Measure for Measure has been called a problem play and it's easy to see why. The plotting can seem awkward and contrived, but more disturbing is its central idea - can there be true justice in the real world? Most of the play's action happens in places where power is routinely used and abused: the palace, the prison, the brothel. This is not a pretty world and the play's answer about the possibility of justice seems curiously modern, both in style and content - it says "yes" but implies "no". Perhaps Shakespeare did not mean us to read his play this way, we may simply be out of touch with his belief system, whatever that was. But what we can see very clearly - after the great set-piece speeches about judgment, mercy and death - are images of women suffering at the hands of men. As for the men - well, they torment themselves and each other - few are decent, most deserve whipping. So if this is a comedy what's Shakespeare's idea of a tragedy? (This is a rhetorical question.)
At the Olivier Simon McBurney and his Complicite company work very hard to prove the play's contemporary relevance. This is not just Shakespeare in modern dress, but Shakespeare with yesterday's newspapers. There are surveillance devices everywhere. The Duke (David Troughton) leaves Vienna by helicopter. In dim candle-light the face of Angelo (Paul Rhys) could be mistaken for that of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair's former spin-meister. He gives press conferences. The word "war" prompts a rash of images of George W Bush to appear on the screens. The brothel scenes deploy the iconography of contemporary porn. Prisoners are dressed in Guantanamo orange and the hapless tapster/pimp/hangman Pompey appears with an Abu Graibh dog's leash hanging from his neck. This play, says McBurney, is about Us. Now.
And of course he may be right, but he over-states his case. Indeed, over-statement is a problem generally with this production. The use of video and microphone, initially striking, soon prove distracting, as do the slow motion dumb shows of violence that occur in the shadows behind the main action. The moated grange of Mariana has never been so watery, thanks to superb lighting and design, and the loss of her brother is movingly portrayed, but the visuals steal magic from the words describing them. Pompey's interrogation, a Beckett-like vignette about the impossibility of story and truth, is rushed and unclear. This, and much else, is performed brilliantly to exhibition standard, but the total effect is of trying too hard and the play ends up feeling strained. Similarly, while nearly all the performers display awesome technique, they sound uniformly angry and impatient, as if driven by the higher purpose of delivering a message rather than humbly articulating the words of the text.
The play's misanthropy is overstated in the same way. While it is an interesting notion to make Claudio the kind of slime ball any sister should be delighted to be shot of, it does seem rather hard to blacken the play's only decent characters, Escalus and the Provost, portraying the former as an alcoholic and the latter as an enthusiastic executioner. But this is only done to exalt the role of Barnadine and make him the play's true hero. Barnadine is the natural anarchist who rejects all power and authority - he simply refuses to go out and be executed. Johannes Flaschberger is an excellent Barnadine and McBurney has him stalk across the stage at the end as a reproach to anyone with less integrity than he has. Which is of course everyone. There is something in this, but what little we know about prison management in Shakespeare's day suggests Barnadine's survival owed more to the indulgence of his jailers than the doubtful charm of a superannuated hippy. But that would be inconsistent with the heartless Vienna (and London and Washington) McBurney seeks to convey.
This is a thrilling, committed and challenging evening that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves fine acting and stagecraft. But for me, at least, Complicite's vision and power work against themselves. In its way the production is as authoritarian as the tyranny it urges us to condemn. Would it not be more radical to let the audience draw its own conclusions from the play than have them presented in packages, however sensational they are? Measure for Measure is a much stranger and more subversive play than we see here, with religious and narrative complexities that are ill-served by concentrating solely on its sex and politics. It seems that McBurney's imperative is to create a striking visual correlate for the ideas and emotions he finds in the text. But the result is to dramatise the instant at the expense of revealing the arc of the drama. This is a fantasia on themes from Measure for Measure rather than the play itself. As such it elevates style above heart, but the style is formidable.
| Measure for Measure
Written by William Shakepeare
Directed by Simon McBurney
Starring: Paul Rhys, David Troughton
With: Mike Grady, Toby Jones, Clive Mendus, Tamzin Griffin, Richard Katz, Ben Meyjus, Angus Wright, Steven Crossley, Naomi Frederick, Cait Davis, Kostas Philippoglou, Rhydian Jones, Vinette Robinson, Jamie R Bradley, Meredith MacNeil, Johannes Flaschberger
Set Designer: Tom Pye
Costume Designer: Christine Cunningham
Music: Gerard McBurney
Musical Director: Simon Deacon
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Choreographer: Paul J Medford
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Video Designer: Simon McBurney, Sven Ortel, Tom Pye
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 31st July 2004.
Part of the £10 Travelex Season at the Olivier
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 28th May 2004 performance at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)