Measure for Measure holds an awkward place in Shakespeare’s canon. Full of lengthy soliloquies, reflections on life and death, fraught relationships, it also features the comedic tropes of mistaken identities and works its way towards a neat marriage ending. The bawdy jokes abound, but there’s also speeches that wouldn’t seem out of place in Hamlet.
Is it a tragedy, or is it a comedy? It’s a problem play, for sure.
The Duke leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna, where he quickly condemns Claudio to death for immoral behaviour. Angelo offers to pardon Claudio if his sister, the nun Isabella, sleeps with him. Isabella agrees but has Angelo’s fiance switch places with her, meaning that she retains her chastity and virginity. The Duke returns to spare Claudio, expose and punish Angelo, and propose to Isabella.
The Royal Shakespeare Company have set this version in 1900’s Vienna. Moral decay abounds, and the future looks bleak. The play is about the abuse of power, sex, and hypocrisy, and the dark set and moody lighting echo the sombre mood. Of course, it’s easy to transpose the society in which they are operating to our own, something that always seems to work with Shakespeare plays. There’s a universality to them. It was easy to see our own society’s reflection in it, something Gregory Doran must have been aware of.
There’s nothing spectacular about the production. But then that’s not what the RSC were going for. This is a play about justice, morals, and decisions, rather than grand flourishes of drama. There’s more action in the second half, which certainly skips along at a brighter pace. Unfamiliar with Measure for Measure as a text, I enjoyed the complexities and thought it was portrayed well and competently, if not extraordinarily.
It’s part of a season of invigorating Shakespeare plays that burst with contemporary resonance, taking place at the Marlowe Theatre, before continuing on their travels.