Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Measure for Measure tends to be called a problem play because it resists pigeon-holing. It's not a tragedy but, although it has undoubted comic elements, it isn't a comedy, so we get terms like tragi-comedy used to describe it. So what? Does a play have to fit neatly into a category?

No, for me the problem about Measure for Measure is not what sort of play it is, but the ending. It is just so unbelievable. Somehow, after all the nastiness, we are to suppose that Angelo and Mariana are to live in wedded bliss, Claudio is to forgive his sister for not being willing to sacrifice her virginity to save him, and Isabella is to give up her fervent vocation to marry the Duke. It just doesn't ring true.

And this is where the pigeon-holing comes in: if we describe it as a comedy (or a tragi-comedy, if such a weird beast can exist), then we have to accept a happy ending, a resolution of all conflicts with everyone getting their just deserts. So the ending sits unhappily with the rest of the play, and the whole thing becomes a problem - unless, like the director of this production, Sean Holmes, you defy categorisation and, by the careful plotting of the final scene, make us realise that the so-called happy ending is all in the mind of the Duke and not a reality. Mariana and Angelo's body language does not bespeak a happy couple; Claudio glares at his sister and she goes most unwillingly with the Duke at the end.

By refusing to submit to the categorisation-mania, Holmes has presented the play as a piece of drama with a most uncertain ending, much closer to life than the normal happy ending - and much more satisfying.

In fact, Holmes makes no effort to play down the selfishness of the Duke - he wants the old morality laws restored but doesn't want to risk his popularity with the people by impsing them himself, so he basically sets up Angelo to be the fall-guy. His dismissal of Angelo's protests as to his unworthiness to fill his shoes are brusque in the extreme and from the very start of his supposed leaving of Vienna, he is ready to interfere secretly, not so much to see justice is served but to ensure his own reputation. It is significant - and Holmes' production does emphasise this - that the only person whom he punishes is Lucio who had dared to say disparaging things about him to his face when he was in his friar's disguise.

Set in the Vienna of round about the forties, there is a darkness - physical, moral and spiritual - about the production. In the opening scene, set very effectively in a railway station as the Duke makes his hurried goodbyes, the stage is smoke-filled and dark, with shafts of light piercing the gloom; prostitutes ply their trade, even in the presence of the Duke, his officials and police, and they provide the only colour in the blacks, dark blues, browns and greys of all the other characters.

Another problem is, of course, that few of the characters have any appeal to an audience. The Duke for the reasons enumerated above, Angelo because he is a perfect example of power corrupting, Isabella because she is really too holier-than-thou for modern tastes (and, I suspect, for the tastes of the first Elizabethan age), Escalus because he is just so feeble, Mariana because she is a lush and a slut. In fact, the only characters for whom we feel any liking are the petty villains Lucio (a wonderful spiv character) and Pompey Bum, played by Simon Trinder who reminded me irresistably of Craig Charles in Red Dwarf! Oh, and Elbow, whom one expected to say "Gid moaning" at any moment!

The verdict? A problem-solving production - thanks to Mr Homes - with high production values, thanks to the cast and production team. But I do wish he had slashed the first two scenes to less than half their length - if the text hasn't been corrupted over the years, then they contain some of the worst writing Shakespeare ever produced.

Steve Orme reviewed this production at the Swan, Stratford.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan