Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon
(2003)

The problem with the problem plays is that they can be too much of a problem, no matter how strong the cast and director. So it is with Measure for Measure, a supposed comedy which had plenty to say in Shakespeare's time about sexual morality but has little relevance today.

Like All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure has also been called a dark comedy or a tragic-comedy. But the main problem seems to be that there's very little comedy in it. And it's hardly a tragedy as all the loose ends are tied up in the final scene, although there are major doubts that everyone will live happily ever after.

RSC associate director Sean Holmes has set the play in 1940s Vienna and first impressions are of a dark city populated by prostitutes and racketeers. The action starts promisingly enough, the Duke handing over government of the city to his deputy Angelo on the platform of a bustling railway station and departing by train.

Angelo decides to revive laws against sexual promiscuity which had lapsed under the Duke and a young gentleman, Claudio, is sentenced to death for making his fiancée Juliet pregnant before they're married.

Claudio's sister Isabella, a novice nun, is persuaded by his friend Lucio to plead with Angelo for her brother's life. Angelo says if she sleeps with him he will free Claudio.

But the Duke hasn't left Vienna. Disguised as a friar, he observes what is happening and eventually reveals himself to confront everyone with their crimes.

Holmes has assembled a talented cast but in this production you can hardly measure the highs - everything is presented on a professional, ordered level which means there is little sparkle or drama to keep you enthralled.

Making his RSC debut, Paul Higgins is a competent Duke, adopting a Scots accent every time he dons the friar's garb. But you feel little sympathy for his plight even though he finally manages to dispense justice and gain respect.

Daniel Evans' Angelo, a scheming bureaucrat who is corrupted by the power thrust upon him, is believable enough as a strict disciplinarian although he is overcome with neither lust nor passion for Isabella.

As for Emma Fielding, she is too fiery as the young woman about to take holy orders. When Lucio accuses her of being too cold as she begs Angelo to save her brother, Isabella sets about him with the audacity of a terrier. She is neither genteel nor naïve, qualities you would expect from someone who has presumably led a sheltered life.

There are lighter moments though. John Floyd Fillingham (Lucio) is a likeable spiv with more faces than a town hall clock; Simon Trinder (Pompey) is naturally funny and lifts the gloom every time he steps onto the stage; and John Lightbody (Elbow) adds a comic touch with both his delivery and mannerisms.

On the whole though this production doesn't measure up to the RSC's usual standard.

"Measure for Measure" runs until November 4th

Reviewer: Steve Orme