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Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare
The Peter Hall Company
Theater Royal, Bath
(2006)

James Laurenson as the Duke

We all have - or should have - our favourite Shakespeare plays, the US critic Harold Bloom writes in Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. One of his, he adds, is Measure for Measure. I can only wave across leagues of ocean. Bloom notes the 'high rancidity' of the work, regarded of the most problematic of all Shakespeare's 'problem comedies'. It's an apt phrase, one that captures the intellectually-demanding nature of the language - knotty, abstruse - and the issues involved, viz: the nature of authority, of justice and of forgiveness.

It also evokes the recoil from something 'gone off', in this case, the morality of most, if not all, of the inhabitants of Vienna where the corruption goes to the very top. The Duke at the start of the play announces, to a shocked court, his immediate and unexplained departure, appointing, in his absence, his deputy Angelo. He then snoops, in the disguise of a friar, on what unfolds. He reveals he has let law enforcement slide, leading to moral laxity. Angelo may reinstate the full rigors of the law, but it's clear that he knows that Angelo is a hypocrite.

The unpleasantness of most of the principal characters is not fudged by Hall, with several exceeding even recent realisations. Andrea Riseborough as Isabella is notably unsympathetic being, in Virginia Woolf's phrase, a woman who is "without valley or shade". Her willingness to see her brother die to protect her virginity is difficult enough for modern audiences to accept but to be so tough with it makes it more so. It doesn't help that she is vocally limited.

Angelo, who is plunged fathoms deep into lust by his encounter with Isabella, is so unpleasant that Coleridge found the play unbearable, the more so since he escapes real punishment. Unfortunately Richard Dormer as Angelo finds his character's rage well enough but not the desire. James Laurenson, by contrast, is merely testy as the Duke, neither well-intentioned, as played by Roger Allam, nor Machiavellian, as performed by David Troughton for the NT.

The result of all this is to make a problematic play even more difficult for a modern audience. Where are we to gain purchase? Not in Kevin Rigdon's quietly brilliant design - all prison bars and blackness - which beautifully but starkly showcases the action that shifts between courtroom, nunnery, brothel and prison. It is rather the latter which sounds the still, sad music of humanity and thus provides the lifeblood of this "snow broth" of a play. Shining brightest here is Teddy Kempner as Pompey, bawd to Mistress Overdone, and Michael Mears as Lucio, a 'gentleman' and regular customer of Mistress Overdone's.

Ken Tynan, who, with Laurence Olivier, was succeeded at the National Theatre by Hall, waspishly noted in his diaries, "It would be madness to go into one of his (Hall's) productions in the expectation of being moved to tears either of laughter or of grief. You will get clarity, tact, restraint, lucid exposition but you will not be made to feel." It's hardly impartial commentary but one feels there is something in this. On the other hand this is a bugger of a play.

Sexual frustration and disgust - also to be found in Shakespeare's sonnets - permeate the play. What are we to make of the final scene and the various marriages - a deeply flawed tying up of loose ends by Shakespeare? Angelo is forced by the Duke into a loveless marriage with Marianna, a woman he has previously spurned and shamed. Lucio, ditto, to a whore. To cap it all and completely out of the blue, the Duke proposes to Isabella, a woman who at the start of the play has retired to a convent. The sudden emergence of a double bed in Theatre de Complicite's recent NT production brings home the brutality and ineluctability of the proposal. Hall, here, is equally forthright. The assembled throng turn to one another in utter shock, Isabella clings to her brother Claudio and the lights go down on this dark and deeply troubled city.

For the critic Arthur Quiller-Couch, the difficulties posed by the play show that Shakespeare was not fully in control of his material, had not worked out all the issues he had raised. Perhaps though, the problem is ours. Titus Andronicus, another play which fell out of favour and the repertoire for many years, also offers an equally stark and unblinking view of humanity. We may prefer the world view of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night but, Shakespeare seems to be saying; older now, wiser and very much sadder: life isn't like that.

Reviewer: Pete Wood