Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare
RNT Olivier
(2004)

Measure for Measure poster

The National Theatre's Travelex £10 seasons have proved to be cheap only in terms of the amount that one has to pay for tickets and the sometimes minimalist sets. The productions themselves have cut no corners and Simon McBurney's Measure for Measure is no exception.

It combines the best elements of a raucous comedy and sometimes melodramatic film noir to provide two-and-a-quarter hours of excellent entertainment. We even get a whiff of the almost ubiquitous George W.

The action takes place in a completely empty square space onto which odd pieces of furniture are dragged. This is supplemented by video projections and microphones. There is also much effective use of shadow and silhouette.

One oddity of this production is that by using the electronic gadgetry, McBurney allows actors to spend remarkable amounts of time facing directly upstage with their faces seen on monitors.

The plot is perhaps not as well-known as many other parts of the Shakespearean canon. It is set in Vienna and all led by the actions of Duke Vincentio, played by David Troughton, looking like a refugee from Endgame.

He disappears leaving his deputy, the nervy Angelo, running a city that is giving itself over to wine, women and song.

Paul Rhys' Angelo takes against Claudio, Ben Meyjes as a man who has got his mistress, Juliet with child. This is a capital offence and Angelo is determined to see the sentence through to fruition.

However, he is not expecting to meet Claudio's sister, the lovely, nunnery-bound Isabella, with whom he is head-over-heels smitten. She is given a choice between a fate worse than her own death; or that of her cowardly brother.

After much fun involving friars and constables, whoremasters and executioners, the hypocritical Angelo is eventually tricked into bed with a woman whom he has wronged. As a consequence, all live happily ever after.

Simon McBurney ensures that the pace never lets up and he is well served by his cast. Paul Rhys creates a singular Angelo, a twitchy man who seems uncomfortable in his own skin, even before he is forced a take on a role to which he is unsuited.

The highlight though is a remarkably sensitive performance by Naomi Frederick, as the beautifully innocent but mentally strong Isabella. She shines throughout, and in particular when debating with Angelo in an attempt to save her brother's life and her own chastity.

Much of the fun is injected by a series of comedians led by Toby Jones as louche Lucio. Here is a veritable clown who pushes his luck way too far, much to the delight of the audience.

This collaboration between the National Theatre and Complicite is yet another South Bank success. They have taken average Shakespeare and raised it to something far better.

It is great to be able to report that even for matinee performances, there are healthy returns queues outside both of the National Theatre's main stages. It must be good for the health of the nation's drama that both Shakespeare and new plays, in this case Alan Bennett's The History Boys, are both selling out.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

John Thaxter reviewed the revived and partially recast production at the RNT Lyttelton in 2006

Reviewer: Philip Fisher