Shakespeare’s Globe opens its winter season with a lively production of the bard’s more intriguing plays, Measure for Measure. Referred to as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ for its ambiguous tone, the play may easily be described as a farce, a comedy or even a drama. It touches upon a vast multitude of themes, from the role of government in controlling individual liberty to the damning negotiation between morality and societal status. Director Blance McIntyre seeks to bring out and contextualise these threads to modern society by setting the play in mid-1970s Britain, where the state finds itself (and its powers) increasingly at odds with what the citizens desire. With a tight-knit performance by the experienced ensemble, a cross-casting of different characters and an intimate environment of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, we witness the bard’s intriguing questions about the exercise of power, freedom and desire come to life in a way that doesn’t seem too far from the questions we ask of those in power today.
Set in the city of Vienna, the play opens with Duke Vincentio (Hattie Ludbury) leaving the city for a diplomatic mission. He leaves his deputy Angelo (Ashley Zhangazha) in-charge, who begins to exercise his new power harshly over the citizens, including sentencing Claudio (Josh Zaré) for sleeping with a woman out of wedlock. Angelo’s ascetic public image is everything but a facade, for he elicits sexual favours from Claudio’s sister and novice nun Isabella (Georgia Landers) in exchange for her brother’s life. Meanwhile, we discover that Duke Vincentio hasn’t actually left the city but keeps a look over her deputy’s affairs under disguise. When she learns of Isabella’s predicament, she helps her out by planning an elaborate scheme to hoodwink Angelo into sleeping with his once-betrothed Mariana in exchange for Claudio’s life. With her trickery, wit and knowledge, the Duke succeeds in thwarting off Angelo’s diabolical intentions whilst maintaining Isabella’s honour. The play ends with the Duke’s proposal of marriage to Isabella, who neither accepts nor declines.
Whilst the original play carries an unmissable male gaze where male characters seek to decide the fate of female characters, McIntyre’s decision to have the Duke as a female figure allows us to engage with the story in a refreshing way. This shedding of masculine charm and gallant chivalry, which are otherwise rife in Shakespeare’s male characters, also allow us to interpret Isabella’s silence to the Duke’s proposal in many different ways. There is a fluidity to how we see not only these two characters but also others, whose words seek to assert not just their social or political role in society, but also who they are as living, breathing humans. James Cotterill’s set design elevates the intimate staging through an uncomplicated yet dynamic use of stage properties, whilst the eclectic use of candlelight to illuminate the stage tugs at us to look beyond what’s apparent (and what’s not). Hattie Ludbury commands a definitive presence as the Duke and the Friar in disguise, whilst Zhangazha’s Angelo invokes a rigid obsession with his public image and the insecurities he harbours underneath. Georgia Landers’ Isabella is unassuming and unapologetic, striving to do right by her brother without compromising on her dignity. Daniel Millar draws many laughs with his gently portrayal of Provost and an unintentionally impish constable Elbow, whilst Eloise Secker’s charming Pompey (and an emotionally distraught Mariana) beguiles the audience with quick looks and a playful presence.
To summarize, ‘Measure for Measure’ at the Shakespeare’s Globe is a wonderful reading of the Bard’s lesser-known play, asking us to look beyond the farce between the lines and glimpse at how we exercise our freedom and our identity within structures of power and hierarchy, be it those created by economic class, societal morality or even political power.
You can watch Measure for Measure at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from 3rd December till 15th January. Read more and book your tickets at https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on/measure-for-measure-2021/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 2nd December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★