REVIEW: Suave inhumanity and potent defiance in the RSC's Measure for Measure in Stratford

Lucy Phelps as Isabella and Sandy Grierson as Angelo. Picture: Helen Maybanks
Lucy Phelps as Isabella and Sandy Grierson as Angelo. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Peter Ormerod reviews Measure for Measure, presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Angelo has just given Isabella an ultimatum: sleep with me or your brother dies.

Graeme Brookes as Barnadine. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Graeme Brookes as Barnadine. Picture: Helen Maybanks

"With an outstretch'd throat I'll tell the world aloud what man thou art," says Isabella.

Angelo responds: "Who will believe thee?"

And thus is encapsulated the power of the sexual predator from generation to generation. As it was in 1603 is now.

Many of Shakespeare's devotees like to stress how 'relevant' his work remains, but that is to do him a disservice. Much of his work is not so much relevant as simply true. This can be depressing, as it is in this instance; but this no bleak night at the theatre, thanks largely to a compellingly defiant performance from Lucy Phelps as Isabella.

Antony Byrne as the Duke of Vienna. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Antony Byrne as the Duke of Vienna. Picture: Helen Maybanks

One cannot help wondering how much better this play would be without its rather forced comic scenes. That may sound a strange thing to say about a work originally conceived as a comedy, but the central dilemma is so dramatically potent that all the clowning and cavorting feels not just unnecessary but deleterious to the whole. Gregory Doran's stylish production establishes an admirable sense of cohesion, but there is still a problem of coherence, leading to inevitably mixed results.

When it is good, it is by some way the most powerful drama seen on this stage so far this year. The scenes between Isabella and Angelo (Sandy Grierson) are played with a profound emotional intelligence: Phelps's body is even more articulate than her speech, while Angelo is all the more monstrous for his lack of overt monstrosity. Grierson plays him as an uptight and dignified official who believes himself to be virtuous; he is fully human, which makes him all the more menacing. It is through his "unsoil'd name," the "austereness" of his life and his "place i' the state" that he wields his appalling power.

Setting the play in the Vienna of the 1900s is also something of a masterstroke. It lends this rather squalid tale a veneer of gentility and elegance; Stephen Brimson Lewis's design and Simon Spencer's lighting are sharp and slick, while the stage is backed by a row of attractive but distorting mirrors, which display the true grotesquery of proceedings. They also permit a neat device which invites us to draw parallels between Angelo and the ostensibly more benign Duke.

But not everything works so well. Some performances here would benefit from being reined in; there is a fair bit of unnecessary grandstanding, which sometimes threatens to overwhelm matters. And most disappointing of all is the use of regional accents for comic purposes; this has been a dreadful and lazy feature of far too many RSC productions in recent years. Some directors appreciate the need to change this practice but it is a great pity to see Doran, the RSC's artistic director no less, continue to indulge in it. The company has done relatively well in terms of gender, race and disability of late, but it seems class remains a blind spot.

Sandy Grierson as Angelo. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Sandy Grierson as Angelo. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Still, this is overall an appealing production of a challenging play. It is most notable for its depiction of Isabella not as some tiresome prude who values her own chastity over her brother's life, but as a woman standing up to sexual violence. There is a welcome sense of unease to the superficially happy ending, too; Isabella is vindicated but it is hard to see how the lives of the play's women are meaningfully improved, as men manipulative and overbearing retain their control. Relevant, yes. But simply true, too.

* Measure for Measure runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until August 29. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/measure-for-measure to book.

David Ajao as Pompey and Joseph Arkley as Lucio. Picture: Helen Maybanks

David Ajao as Pompey and Joseph Arkley as Lucio. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Lucy Phelps as Isabella. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Lucy Phelps as Isabella. Picture: Helen Maybanks

James Cooney as Claudio and Lucy Phelps as Isabella. Picture: Helen Maybanks

James Cooney as Claudio and Lucy Phelps as Isabella. Picture: Helen Maybanks