Guildford Shakespeare Company has made some bold choices with its 40th production. This stripped-down Measure for Measure highlights both the striking modernity of the play’s themes, and the unspoken judgements even contemporary audiences might apply to the story of a powerful politician trading sexual favours for preferential treatment.
Here, the tale is told twice, once cross-cast, and then again with the actors taking traditional gender roles.
The thought-provoking change demands an immediate re-evaluation of the material, with subtly different deliveries and nonverbal interactions rewarding attentive watching. But for all that, there’s no doubt that the point could have been made without repeating the same scenes in their entirety.
Nevertheless, director Charlotte Conquest gives it a dynamic, in-the-round staging, with nooks and alcoves delineating public and private spaces, secluded gardens, and offices with locked doors. Matt Eaton’s crackly ambient score swells at key moments, establishing a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere.
Esther McAuley’s Duke strikes a balance between cunning and alarming, playing up her willingness to flaunt her absolute authority over others with finely-judged comic timing. Graeme Dalling’s Isabello cuts a tremblingly fragile figure, forced to compromise his honour to save his brother’s life.
By contrast, Hannah Edwards’ take on the character is more emotionally raw, more impassioned in her defence of decency. When it comes down to her word against that of the callously sleazy Angelo, her plaintive question, “who would believe me?” feels as real and relevant now as when it was written.