In Simon Godwin’s taut production of Measure for Measure the audience enters the theatre via the back entrance through Mistress Overdone’s brothel. Greeted by blasé working ladies in action, we pass peep-show booths and sex toys on shelves. This hedonistic playground establishes the world of Shakespeare’s play – a world in which the characters weigh sin, mercy, and justice.
Godwin’s music-driven production contains twangy electric guitars and such a large number of silicone penises that they demand a unique collective noun (a phalanx?). There’s audience interaction too: the cast makes its entrance through the audience and some people are moved on the stage for forlorn Mariana to serenade. A clamorous off-stage alt-rock band bridges scene transitions.
Among the diverse ensemble, Haynes Thigpen as Lucio and January LaVoy as Escala (a gender-swapped Escalus) stand out. Though, elsewhere, the imprecise caricatures intended as the comic relief start to grate.
Jonathan Cake glides through his role as the Duke with giddy charm while Thomas Jay Ryan’s Angelo smoothly shifts from rigid zealot to man smitten with Isabella. But with terrifying speed Angelo’s gentleness dissipates as he violently gropes her to get what he wants. Cara Ricketts’ virtuous Isabella is pressured and abused but never breaks. It’s a poised and formidable performance. Even when ensnared in Angelo’s trickery her strength dominates. Ricketts’ openness lets the audience feel each betrayal Isabella suffers at the hands of men.
In this production the women bear the brunt of men’s whims through the shame of broken engagements, lost virtue, or unplanned pregnancy – something that remains frustratingly familiar to us today.