April 2, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Measure for Measure @ The Almeida Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.almeida.co.uk/production_details/production_details.aspx?code=90

I’ve been waiting for quite some time to see a good Measure for Measure. It’s a play I love on the page, but which I’ve always been bored by in the theatre. Happily, Michael Attenborough’s Almeida production finally met that wish, with strong performances and a simple, persuasive interpretation bringing the play’s innate strengths to the fore.

Attenborough’s modern-dress production set the play in a rough modern-day London, where prostitutes leaned against decaying archways and coppers – under the new powers gifted them by Angelo – cleared the streets. The opening saw Ben Miles’ Duke sitting alone in his darkened office, with classical music playing and an austere Renaissance fresco filling the back wall. As the music gave way to a pounding beat, the fresco became translucent, revealing gyrating pole-dancers. Vincentio bowed his head, the juxtaposition of the state he wanted and the state he had created directly influencing his decision to depart. His initial conversation with Angelo and Escalus, who turned on the light as they entered and thus literally drew him from his darkness, was fast and rushed, he continuing to shout instructions even as he grabbed his coat and marched from the office. David Killick’s Escalus and Rory Kinnear’s Angelo were left bemused and bewildered at the suddenness with which they had been gifted power. Tentatively, Escalus closed the scene in a deferent tone, inviting Angelo to take the lead, at which Angelo laughed dismissively… and then paused, as the reality of his new situation finally sunk in.

The contrast between the Duke and Angelo’s priorities was made quickly clear. A table sat centre-stage for all scenes in the Duke’s office, at first cluttered with disordered piles of the Duke’s papers, dirty plates and unread files. Upon its next appearance, however, it was almost entirely bare. Angelo’s few papers and files were arranged orderly and at neat right angles, with the rest kept safely in his own briefcase. The mission to "clean up" the city was thus immediately recognised as a beurocratic exercise, a dissociated and pedantically-motivated endeavour. Kinnear is fast establishing himself as one of the best young classical actors in the business, and his conflicted Angelo was a triumph of repressed emotion and misused power. Appearing first in shirt-sleeves, this dedicated jobsworth began with good intentions and a desire to prove himself. Separated from the effects of his work, however (as evidenced by his dismissive tone as he ordered executions), he had no power to deal with vice at first hand, whether giving Elbow and Pompey over to Escalus to judge, or failing to restrain his own lust for Isabella.

Anna Maxwell Martin’s Isabella was more like Angelo than either would care to admit. Her wish for more restrictions on the liberty of nuns was an early indicator of her over-enthusiasm and zeal: she was as committed to her own beliefs as Angelo was to his; yet she was far from sincerely kind or patient. Rather, she relished the discipline and extremity of her beliefs, allowing her to give her religious fervour full vent. This thoroughly-interesting reading of Isabella meant that she was no pushover, and in fact relished with some glee the idea of the bed trick, as well as being very believable in her promise to scratch out Angelo’s eyes. This Isabella was of the fire-and-brimstone school of Christianity, and her initial meeting with the deputy was evangelistic in tone. Every mention of Heaven or higher authority was accompanied by a shaking figure pointing to the sky; every imploration given with the quaver of righteous truth in her voice; every demand made leaning over the desk, pushing her case quite literally onto the reticent Angelo. Her rhetoric and self-belief brooked no argument, and her passion for her beliefs fascinated Angelo, who recognised in her his own dedication.

Comically, their second meeting was prefaced by a short interlude in which Angelo rearranged his desk – still tidy, but now with a crucifix placed prominently – and knelt down to pray with rosary beads, sneaking glances over his shoulder in the hope that she would enter to see him doing so. In trying to meet her to her own liking, Angelo was the first to show weakness, allowing his facade to break. She remained self-possessed, even during a marvellous silence after Angelo’s "Your brother must die". While neither moving nor speaking for a moment, Martin conveyed the pain and anguish of reconciling herself to that bad news while maintaining her own dignity and self-presentation, before finally excusing herself and wheeling towards the door.

The anger of the young nun at having her vows explicitly challenged was immediately apparent: as already mentioned, this was a fiery rather than forgiving Isabella, and there was no small amount of vindictiveness in the character. As Angelo tried to persuade her, she shrank into herself, allowing him to sit on a cushion behind her and tentatively put his arms around her as he explained his promises. As soon as it was entirely clear, however, she shot to her feet with a "Ha!", revealing that she had been leading him into the false sense of intimacy in order to draw from him an open confession, which she would publish to the world. This self-righteousness, however, was to her immediate disadvantage for the deputy, previously still governed by some sense of restraint, had now let his guard down and allowed passion to take over. In fury and desperation, he grabbed her, pinned her down on the desk and sat astride her, the threat of rape very much implicit. It was Angelo, though, who perceived her pain and withdrew himself, leaving her sobbing on the desk. Even Angelo had limits; he would not rape her violently, but was prepared to use blackmail to get her "consent".

Miles’ Duke was also paralleled with Isabella throughout. After explaining his plan to disguise himself, Isabella entered at the other side of the stage and the two stood as mirror images of each other as they stripped and then were dressed in the respective clothes of a friar and a nun. This was perhaps most interesting in the support it gave for the idea that Isabella’s nun-hood was itself a charade or disguise, something to be put on rather than lived. It also meant that our first sighting of Isabella was in her underwear – like Angelo, the audience’s first experience of her was as a woman. The connection between them was emphasised just before the interval as, in happiness at the potential for a solution, she took his hand. He held on for a moment longer than necessary, gazing at her, and as she disengaged and left, a confused frown filled her face.

The Duke was characterised for the most part by his calmness, which made those moments when he betrayed his emotions particularly significant. Notably, Lloyd Hutchinson’s Irish Lucio got under his skin very quickly, the Duke eventually gritting his teeth every time the man spoke or came near him. More interesting was the Duke’s humour and excitement. In the last scene in particular, as he unveiled his plans, he grew over-pleased at his own cleverness and, in a fit of excitement, offered everything he had to Isabella with full confidence of her acceptance. When he returned, in his final speech, to formally propose to her, he left his chair of state and knelt down, with one arm pointing across the stage to the corner where she stood as he asked for her hand. The still silence and complete unresponsiveness of Isabella was drawn out for an uncomfortably long time, before the chastened Duke let his hand slowly fall and left the stage with his entourage. In this moment, we realised that the reasons for the Duke’s actions were as much to boost his own sense of self-worth and power as anything else, allowing him to transform from the troubled figure of the opening scene to the ruler glorying in his own power in the last. Isabella’s refusal to complete his consolidation of all forms of authority, of course, provided the ultimate undermining of that mission.

The prison scenes were effective. Emun Elliott’s Claudius, something of a rake and quite whiny, was particularly effective in his scene with Isabella. He began genuinely outraged on her behalf, before the fear of death slowly crept in on him, his face falling notably as she embraced him, before he began to explore the possibility of her acceding to the request. True to form, she denounced him as sinful and a heretic for even suggesting it, her piety immovable: while one sympathised, one could also see her brother’s frustration at her inflexibility. David Annen’s dignified Provost had a commanding presence in these scenes, yet fleshed out this rewarding character with his sense of his own political impotence: wringing his hands, he grew angry at the "Friar’s" hopes of changing things, which experience had taught this Provost were simply impossible.

The comic characters were also strong, if far more slight. Trevor Cooper’s Pompey was a pot-bellied pimp with earrings and leather jacket, a sturdy enforcer who was unmoved and unfazed by his appearance before Angelo, allowing him to draw great comedy out of his lack of reaction. He was allowed, however, a powerful scene with Lucio as he pleaded with him for bail, the tough-guy image giving way to a moment of genuine fear as he realised that help was not at hand. Hutchinson’s Lucio, meanwhile, effected a nice switch of sympathies: in the earlier scenes he was sympathetic and on-side, genuine in his wish to help Claudio and amusing as he set Isabella on (though shocked as her fervour took over and rendered his encouragement superfluous). His rejection of Pompey was a turning point, though, followed instantly by his mockery of the Duke to the disguised Duke. As he prattled on unwisely, his inevitable downfall became apparent, and the pay-off – his face as he confidently removed the Friar’s hood – was priceless. Sean Kearns’ scenes as Froth and Barnardine, however, were rather dull.

For the final scene, a throne was placed centre-stage for the Duke to take control of, and the scene played out as one might expect, almost disappointingly so as the strong set-up was replaced by a feeling of going through the motions. Part of the problem of this scene was its static quality: with the Duke centre, addressing the "crowd" in the audience, the rest of the company were reduced to standing in lines on either side, though even from this position Kinnear gave an impressive demonstration of restrained grief, standing with arms at his side, a slight bow and an utterly defeated demeanour. Isabella was similarly reduced to passivity, with Miles dominating the scene. As he swept off, however, the production closed on a well-chosen image: Isabella, Mariana, Juliet, Claudio and Angelo in a semi-circle spread far around the stage, all looking inwards and all distinctly separate from one another. For none of these couples was there a happy or untroubled ending, and through all of them the effectiveness of the Duke’s tricks was thrown open to question. A conventional but powerful end to a solid Measure for Measure that, for this reviewer at least, finally convinced of the play’s potence in performance.

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