Theatre review: Measure for Measure

Posted on: 25 February 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews the new modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.

It is rare to find a 400-year-old play as relevant today as when it was first written but this is indeed the case with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.

The action takes place in Vienna, not at the time of the Hapsburg glory but the recent past, in a world torn between sleazy excess and moralistic solemnity. Vincentia, the Duke, desperately needs to return order to his city. He announces that he is to travel abroad on a diplomatic mission and appoints the hard-line Angelo in his place while remaining in the city in disguise to keep a curious and watchful eye.

When Angelo sentences the brother of a novice nun, Isabella, to death for a sexual indiscretion, she approaches Angelo to plead for his life. What follows is a series of shocking revelations, blackmail, scandal and political intrigue.

This is a drama which explores such contemporary issues as hypocrisy and the abuse of power by those in authority, as well as justice and mercy, moral absolutism and equivocation, all of which are neatly interwoven into an intricate and fast moving production. Although this is a solemn play, the tone is lightened by a strong vein of humour which derives mainly from the actions of the minor characters.

Les Brotherton’s evocative set skilfully moves from the stunning opening scene which appears to be a street in the red light district of the city where scantily clad women bear witness to a rampant and lucrative sex trade, to the contrasting monastic setting and then the prison where Isabella’s brother has been sentenced for premarital intercourse.

But it is the performances under Michael Attenborough’s assured direction that really make this production stand out, in particular Anna Maxwell Martin, with whom we fully emphasise, as Isabella, a young woman of strong moral fibre, willing to vehemently plead the case to save her brother’s life, Emin Elliott as her condemned brother, Ben Miles as a fidgety, authoritative but engaging Duke, and, best of all, Rory Kinnear, resembling a bespectacled, bearded Seventies bureaucrat, as the hypocritical Angelo.

In all then an impressive and unsettling production of a play which clearly exposes the follies and foibles of mankind.

Where: Almeida Theatre, Islington

When: plays until 10 April

Box Office: 020 7359 4404

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