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Measure for Measure review at the Young Vic, London – ‘bold and a bit daft’

Measure for Measure at the Young Vic, London. Photo: Keith Pattison Measure for Measure at the Young Vic, London. Photo: Keith Pattison

If ever a director was capable of fully embracing the perversity of Measure for Measure, it’s Joe Hill-Gibbins. His production, which reunites him with dramaturg and regular collaborator Zoe Svendsen, contains many familiar elements: pulsing music and frequent use of live video feeds, harsh strip lighting and a playing space which is, essentially, a big concrete and plywood container – the man does love a capacious box.

Designer Miriam Buether has made triptych of the theatre’s back wall, merging medieval religious art with Gilbert and George, while the moral pollution of Vienna is here represented as a sculptural tangle of sex dolls, a huge peach heap of vinyl orifices. As a device it’s both audacious and a little bit daft, a description which applies to several of his choices, but while Hill-Gibbins is clearly not afraid of absurdity, his production also underscores the play’s queasy relevance: women’s bodies, their sexual selves, are still in so many ways in the hands of men.

The performances are tonally quite mixed: Paul Ready’s Angelo is a man of quiet violence, but his performance gets a little lost besides Zubin Varla’s wine-ripe, duplicitous Duke; Tom Edden, meanwhile, appears to playing Pompey like a mix of Ratso Rizzo and 1990s Spike Lee. It’s to her credit that, in amongst all this, Romola Garai brings clarity and emotional potency to the role Isabella, her turmoil convincing, and while the production, which rattles through the text in less than two hours, feels frustratingly rushed at times, it absolutely nails the oddity of the final scenes.

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A bold, entertaining and occasionally ridiculous take on one of Shakespeare’s murkiest plays