Measure for Measure is to laughter what Jordan is to subtle good taste. Originally grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, it has since been designated a problem play, in which his intentions are not clear. Claire Grove’s Radio 3 production had problems of its own. The hypocrisy of Anton Lesser’s powerful state deputy Angelo was painted vividly. Yet this grim, sanctimonious, cruel portrait upset the production’s equilibrium.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Duke of Vienna was non-descript. Exercising his right to mete out punishment as Angelo had, he then showed mercy by sparing Angelo’s life. Rather than striking a moral high note, the scene fizzled out like a damp squib. There was not much triumph here in the rule of law and justice. Nadine Marshall’s Isabella withered in the glare of Lesser’s bravura. Sometimes, her speech was unclear; at most times her demeanour was fuzzily sketched. It was difficult to know why Angelo, who had so successfully hidden his licentiousness beneath a prim exterior, was drawn to risk all by seducing an Isabella intent on overdoing the nun act. She diverted him into philosophical musing but his enquiries were directed into a vacuum.
Elsewhere, Ewan Bailey’s Pompey provided a much-needed comic turn, although at first his broad Italian accent – the kind which is strange rather than alluring – threatened to be his chief point of interest. The scene in which he was required to assist the hangman, beseeching Death Row residents to be so good as to rise and be executed, was performed with blackly comic aplomb. Helen Chadwick’s snaking, sinuous and faintly sinister score did much to set the scene of a state given to orgies rather than church-going.
Measure for Measure depicts women as madonnas or whores and female characters were similarly polarised in Christopher William Hill’s Love Me, Liberace, in which a teenage boy’s homosexuality was set against the background of the camp showman pianist’s fifties libel trial against the Vicky Worsley 16/2/04 Daily Mirror’s Cassandra column.
The play was entertaining and even moving. Henry Goodman’s Liberace was archly reminiscent of the real thing and Freddy White’s confused boy, Owen, was both knowing and naive. But I was most interested in two women. One, Liberace’s mother, we never met but she clearly lived and breathed on a pedestal of virtue. Conversely Owen’s mother, played by Frances Barber, would have driven Measure’s Angelo into a frenzy of condemnation. An unmarried mother, she had slept with most of the local tradesmen before hitting upon her son’s shy piano teacher. Barber’s familiar cultured tones vanished in a blitzkrieg of fishwife vowels. Elocution may not have been her forte but there was a shift in her moral perspective as she realised that she and Liberace’s mother may have had more in common than she first thought.
The return of Sue Rudwell’s police drama An Odd Body opened with urgent pantings. It was not the aforementioned harlots in action but Annette Badland’s porky Detective Inspector pounding a running machine, under orders to shed the weight if not the attitude. This was later justified when she was sent undercover: the blubber apparently made it unlikely she would be spotted as a police officer. John Duttine got plodding down to a fine art as her sidekick while her brainier sidekick, her Miss Marple mother (Margaret Tyzack), sounded less loopy than she clearly was.
The alcoholic mother in Barbara Comyn’s twenties series A Touch of Mistletoe could not have been more of a gorgon. Richenda Carey was like Joan Crawford in the throes of film noir. Her daughters (Juliet Aubrey and Jemima Rooper) not surprisingly left home and grew up quickly – thankfully, as the young girl performances were a strain on all of us.
Measure for Measure
R3, Sunday, February 1
Love Me Liberace
R4, Friday, February 13
An Odd Body
R4, from Tuesday, February 17
A Touch of Mistletoe
R4, from Monday, February 9