Measure for Measure, RSC at the Barbican Theatre
Measure for Measure is rather like a Renaissance Indecent Proposal. However, being Shakespeare at work rather than Hollywood, the central moral dilemma is rather more challenging. Not would you have sex with Robert Redford for $1 million, but would you have sex with a wicked man, in order to save your brother's life - but thereby endangering both your immortal souls.
The Duke of Vienna decides to leave his kingdom, allowing his deputy Angelo to take over. Angelo ruthlessly re-evokes old laws of chastity, and condemns to death Claudio, a young man who has got his girlfriend pregnant. Claudio's sister Isabella, a novitiate nun, pleads for his life, but Angelo will only free Claudio if Isabella will make love to him. Isabella refuses, and it seems as if Claudio will hang, but at the last minute, the Duke, who has been following the proceedings disguised as a friar, steps in to prevent tragedy.
Isabella is a tricky role to play. This is a woman whose devout passion and intelligence burn in her like a white flame, sparking ardour in the breast of the puritan Angelo. But she must at the same time spark some sympathy with the audience, or else her refusal to save her brother's life by sleeping with Angelo seems callous and prudish rather than principled.
Unfortunately, Clare Holman's Isabella lacks fire - she argues for her brother's life like a head girl in a school debating competition. Stephen Boxer, as Angelo, is suitably desiccated and pallid, indeed 'a man whose blood is very snow-broth' - one feels he really should get out more. The Duke, as played by Robert Glenister, is not very sympathetic either - his motives seem murky and self-serving.
Many of the supporting cast are excellent. Adrian Schiller is hilariously louche as Claudio's drunken reprobate friend Lucio, and his timing is spot-on. Penny Layden, as Juliet, Claudio's pregnant fiancee, makes a brief but most affecting appearance as a Renaissance waif. Jimmy Chisholm plays the pimp Pompey with camp, Cabaret-style gusto.
The theme of the play in its essence - the nature and abuse of power - is still as valid as it ever was. To make sure this doesn't escape us, this production is given a vaguely modern setting, with much of the city's government and its army kitted out in quasi-fascist gear. The set, all spartan stripped pine, walls and floor, with a staircase at the back, works very well - however, I think we could have done just as well without the biblical mottoes intermittently projected onto the back wall, which add little in the way of congruity or explanation.