Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare
Almeida Theatre
(2010)

Rehearsal photo: Anna Maxwell Martin

It is fortunate that the leading trio each acquit themselves well in Michael Attenborough's very funny, modern dress revival. Had they not done so, Lloyd Hutchinson playing the minor role of the lewd Lucio would have taken all of the plaudits with his impeccable comic timing and warm wit.

Measure for Measure is more contrived than most of the Bard's works but directed with a light touch can be fun, as well as exposing human foible most effectively.

Speaking with exceptional clarity in a cast, all of whom enunciate with care, Ben Miles plays a Viennese Duke who inexplicably abdicates his throne, leaving the licentious city in the hands of an able, if repressed deputy.

However, Rory Kinnear's Angelo has hidden depths, proving a sordid and wholly unprincipled leader eager to get his own way at whatever cost. Kinnear offers a fascinating study of a recognisable type, the public disciplinarian whose private life plumbs shocking depths of depravity.

While the Duke skulks around in monkish robes, despite the efforts of an upstanding assistant, David Killick's Escalus, his deputy rules with a rod of iron, hypocritically condemning a handsome young rake Claudio (Emun Elliott) to death for getting his girlfriend with child.

Claudio's only hope is his holy sister, Isabella, a nun in the making, who takes time out to plead for his life.

Anna Maxwell Martin puts everything into the depiction of a woman who would willingly give her life to save the brother who is responsible for his own troubles. The one thing that she will not sacrifice is what Angelo demands increasingly lustfully, her honour.

Shakespeare deftly sets this up and then continues the trickery after the interval, with exchanged women in bed (cut from the stage in this production) satisfying and then entrapping Angelo and swapped condemned men revving up the drama.

The final unveiling is ironically performed by our friend Lucio, who is finally silenced by the threat, not of death or whipping but much worse, marriage to a woman whom he has wronged.

Strangely in a Shakespearean comedy, marriage is used more to make social comment than as a convenient means of allowing spectators to leave the theatre happy. Indeed, the Duke's surprise request for the hand of Isabella is received in a most unorthodox way.

The simple, intimate setting of the Almeida, helped by the contemporary clothing, makes what can be a difficult play seem very accessible, as does a running time of well under three hours.

Each of the main actors is worth seeing, as is the redoubtable Mr Hutchinson. They are well complemented by the likes of Trevor Cooper playing the tapster Pompey with aplomb and Sean Kearns who gives a brief but notable performance as the reluctant hangman fodder, Barnardine.

One hopes that Michael Attenborough might now have got a taste for staging Shakespeare at the Almeida after this undoubted success. He clearly has a great affinity for the plays.

Playing until 10 April

Reviewer: Philip Fisher