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Measure for Measure review at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘oppressively bleak’

Lucy Phelps and Sandy Grierson in Measure for Measure at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Helen Maybanks

There’s no denying that Shakespeare’s bitter comedy of sleazy politicians and sexual extortion remains as resonant today as it ever was.

Helmed by Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran, this production is a Measure for Measure laden with powerful beats and clear, but uncomfortably loaded, images.

In a fin de siècle Vienna of peeling gilt and palpable moral decay, we see sex workers lightly spanked with truncheons, while the poor are beaten and hauled about by policemen.

Inevitably, the aggressively virtuous Isabella finds all the men in her life pressed up behind her, their hands clawing, vulture-like, at her shoulders. In the play’s closing image, Doran makes a point of highlighting the bleakness of the supposedly happy ending, leaving Isabella alone with a Duke who’s unilaterally decided to marry her – she’s a victim passed from one manipulative man to another.

While each element feels horribly believable in a story that’s all about sex, hypocrisy and the abuse of power, there’s a troubling undercurrent of seedy spectacle to it that jars with the play’s fundamentally satirical tone.

Every character is loathsome in their own special way. James Cooney’s Claudio whines and wheedles for his life, while David Ajao’s swaggering comic delivery gives his Pompey the confident, calculating cleverness of an unscrupulous survivor.

Sandy Grierson brings a powerfully unsettling yet self-effacing quality to his portrayal of corrupt hypocrite Angelo, slithering about the space, averting his gaze when spoken to. To underline his religiously motivated self-loathing, he wears a cilice around his thigh, pointedly removing it as he forms his plan to blackmail a novice nun into sex.

For her part, Lucy Phelps plays Isabella with great sensitivity, maintaining a rational – notably more naturalistic – poise when compared to the heightened caricatures around her.

It’s Antony Byrne’s Duke who most inhabits the play’s contradictions, relishing his power to control the emotions of those around him, grinning manically and swivelling his eyes to the audience as each successive layer of his capricious plotting is peeled away.

Joseph Arkley, James Cooney and Amanda Harris in Measure for Measure at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design leaves the spacious stage almost completely bare, relying on simple but effective projections to provide backdrops in muted colours. The impression of emptiness is intensified further with a wall of moveable two-way mirrors. There’s nowhere to hide a secret in this world, and every shameful act plays out in front of an audience of gawping aristocrats, dressed in crisp 1900s finery.

Paul Englishby’s score draws inspiration from the same period, with tense Viennese waltzes and stately, swelling strings providing a deliciously rich ambience. The musicians are perched overhead throughout, playing on like the band on the Titanic as the city below them sinks into lust and cruelty.

Casting announced for RSC’s touring rep company

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Punchy but often oppressively bleak take on Shakespeare’s problematic problem play