Mariah Gale (Isabella) and Kurt Egyiawan (Angelo) in Measure for Measure
Mariah Gale (Isabella) and Kurt Egyiawan (Angelo) in Measure for Measure
© Marc Brenner

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's strangest plays. While it contains a rich cast of low-life characters and plenty of opportunities for clowning, the central themes of the play are sobering; private morality versus public good and the ramifications of an authoritarian regime.

It must have touched on personal themes. Written against a background of the rise of puritanism, Shakespeare may have been fearful of the effects of the regime on the fleshpots that surrounded the Globe.

Director Dominic Dromgoole has not stinted on the comic elements of the play; there's slapstick aplenty, there are silly walks, malapropisms and an overlong piece of business involving a stinky wife. It's a fault that seems to have permeated all characters; even the distraught Mariana is presented as a rather merry figure, laughing at the trick they're about to play on Angelo.

It's a vision that seems out of place with the harsh regime unfolding around them. A world where young women are branded sits strangely at odds with a setting where levity is the order of the day. Nor does Kurt Egyiawan totally convince as Angelo: while we certainly get his passion for Isabella there's no sense of the moral wranglings within.

But Mariah Gale's Isabella does capture the sense of a young woman discomforted by the passion she sees around her. She burns with religious intensity, a zealotry that overwhelms her. There's no triumph at the end, as she meekly supports Mariana's request and tamely offers her hand to the Duke. It's a performance of great delicacy, in stark contrast to the madcap world that surrounds her.

The over-emphasis on comedy shows up strongest in the travelling Duke. Most modern directors explore the ambiguity at the heart of the character: is he good or deceitful? What lies at the heart of his decision to abandon Vienna to Angelo? Dromgoole treats it as a big practical joke - it's effective but it would have been better if some of the darker themes were explored more fully. It's certainly the funniest Duke I've seen. Dominic Rowan at times sounds more like John Cleese as his tone gets ever more hysterical - and the audience laps it up.

There are further strong comic performances from a mincing Brendan O'Hea as Lucio and a Geordie Pompey courtesy of Trevor Fox. But I yearned for the production to probe the deeper recesses of the play's licentious world.

Measure for Measure continues in rep until 17 October