Where: The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: 20th December 2011
What: Measure for Measure
“Measure for Measure” should, in theory of least, be one of the easiest of William Shakespeare’s films to adapt to address the current western world. Set in a Vienna beset by changing morals and “sexual sin”, the Bard asks whether our sexual mores are best guarded by individual responsibility or by legislation. Even in 2011 England where many of those battles have been seemingly fought and decided, we have had Mr Cameron speaking of a return to Christian values in a speech in recent days and a revival of this play should, therefore, be timely and appropriate.
On the other hand, perhaps you could dress the play up like you have just discovered a warehouse full of disused S&M gear and thrown in the contents of Ann Summers Winter sale and add in a Duke Vincentio who seems to delight in performing perfunctory magic tricks for some less than obvious reason and help the audience miss any contemporary relevance it might have had. This is the hand that the RSC has dealt itself and it is difficult to know why.
The RSC has had a bad year. But it really has to work hard to make it as bad as it has been. It opened its new main theatre with excellent productions like the continuation of 2010s of King Lear (less an old fool) and launched the Swan Theatre with material like the excellent one woman performance of the Rape of Lucrece. But heavy-handed directors have seen all the new productions in the RST guided in a way that lost the heart of the Bard’s greatest plays in a heavy sugar coating of novelty and modish ideas which added nothing to the audiences understanding of the masterworks.
And so comes round Christmas 2011 and in the main theatre we have not Shakespeare but “The Heart of Robin Hood” whilst Mr Shakespeare’s play is found round the back entrance in The Swan. A decision which was guided surely by profit and budgetary considerations rather than the original goals of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Jamie Ballard as Angelo
Back to “Measure for Measure” and when you have stripped away the leather and corsets, you find all that is lurking underneath is some distinctly ordinary performances from a rather lightweight ensemble. Angelo, played by Jamie Ballard, manages to cope remarkably well with his arousal and the awakening of the profound human emotion of love and manages to make his declaration to Isabella (Jodie McNee) seem half-hearted and disinterested. Isabella, herself, does far better with expounding her calling to become a nun than she does making it believable that the male members of the cast keep fall in loving with her or something about her. Raymond Coulthard‘s Vincentio / Friar Lodowick is one of the best thing here once you have got passed the sleight of hand.
Jodie McNee as Isabella
Ultimately, the play is not a disaster, it just never gets better than alright. It’s ability to maintain our interest though does not come from the bizarre wardrobe decisions but from solid performances from the more senior members of the cast. In this category we have Bruce Alexander (best known in recent times for his role as David Jason’s senior officer in “A Touch of Frost”) as a solid Provost and Geoffrey Beevers as Escalus. Joseph Kloskey does well as the bawd Pompey but no-one else is able to add much to this alternately silly and leaden production.
Lodowick and Isabella
2012 brings many challenges for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The greatest will be to restore their heritage and respect for the text until it stands in equal measure to its desire for innovation.