Measure for Measure has always sat uneasily within the ranks of Shakespeare’s comedies, and The Young Vic’s acknowledgement that this is a ‘problem play’ means it is no surprise when they ditch much of the high camp and slapstick comedy that defined The Globe’s production earlier this year. It is, instead, a production that is at its best when it allows the pervasive darkness of the play to come to the forefront.
The audience are greeted with three sides of translucent white curtains, lit up from within. As the play starts the lights in the box fade to red, displaying a semi-visible mass of bodies and blow up dolls, writhing to the thudding beat. It’s a fairly obvious metaphor for hidden immorality, but it is also an effective image – and individual motifs and images are what come to define this production. When the lights snap on the whole thing is rendered ridiculous, the Duke brushing himself off ruefully, already the decision to flee the degraded Vienna at the forefront of his mind. Although the blow up dolls initially have their moment of hilarity, as Escalus (Sarah Malin) and Angelo (Paul Ready) picking their way distastefully through them, they soon lose their effectiveness. After they are thrown to the back room, later in the play, it might have been better to have dispensed with them entirely.
Ready’s Angelo twitches with an anxious physicality, the weight of the task upon him clear. Ready’s performance is the most nuanced of the production – he flits from confident power, as he delivers his speech to the despotic ringing of alarms; from a grasping desperation into predatory litheness and, finally, to a craven, cringing wreck as the Duke (Zubin Varla) delivers his judgement. However, it is not, by any means, the only good performance in the show – Romola Garai’s Isabella is full of fiery faith and desperation, and Natalie Simpson makes the most of her short time as Julietta, especially during her moving prison scene.
This is a production set more-or-less in the modern day, and it makes full use of modern-day technology. The action that takes place in the back room is projected onto the main stage, found-footage style close-ups of characters revelling in their vulnerability. This is particularly effective during the Duke’s initial confession, where Christ’s wounded body is projected on either side of the Duke’s anguished face, but works less well later on, becoming slightly gimmicky. Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Julietta’s relationship is revealed in sex-tape-esque footage, which works well, focusing our modern understanding of public disgrace. When Julietta later cringes away from the camera light, her openness and happiness in this video is brought to mind, implicitly challenging Angelo’s moral judgements.
The production runs straight through at around 80 minutes, and although this means a fair amount of material has been cut, the middle section of the play still drags slightly. Measure for Measure plays with societal moral understanding rather than the electrifying soliloquies found in Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays, and this can be difficult to enliven, especially when it can feel like the Duke himself is dragging out the action. Perhaps it does not help that this production never treats it as an out and out comedy, but it is overall a better production for it. Mariana (Cath Whitefield) and Isabella’s near-constant presence on stage – frozen on the side-lines as the Duke and Angelo pace the stage – highlights the inevitability of the ending, and how powerless both ultimately turn out to be. In fact, moments that are supposed to be nothing but comedic – such as the drug-fuelled prison party – are ineffective, feeling out of place and unnecessary.
The production comes into its own in the final scene, as the Duke’s machinations come into force. Varla’s Duke appears more maniacal than the character is often played, but this works for this production, emphasising the Duke’s dubious morality as he tugs the characters into line, forcing them into roles of his own devising. This scene is where the comedy of hidden identity –the only true comedy in the play – comes to the fore, and there are several moments of hilarity as the Duke reveals himself and his plans. It is, however, also the scene in which Isabella’s despair is cemented. There is no pretence that Isabella’s fate is anything but abhorrent to her, and as she is tugged into place the audience is subdued, their only reaction horrified silence.