What a difference a mile down the riverbank makes. Last month, the National Theatre gave us an exceptionally dark Measure, which examined every facet of sexual power and desire.
In this, the last play in its 'star-crossed lovers' season, the Globe's touch is considerably lighter. John Dove's production makes much use of dance, sometimes bizarrely as when Claudio dances in chains and sometimes movingly, as when Isabella accepts the Duke's hand at the end.
One of the key questions in any production of this play is how much of a political intriguer the Duke is. Does he set in motion the course of the events, or is he caught up in the flow? Or is he somewhere in-between? There's no equivocation in Dove's version The Duke is not an arch-manipulator but someone quite retiring. Mark Rylance plays him as a vague, vacillating bumbler: someone, certainly, too weak for the cares of office. It's not too hard to imagine him as someone prepared to abdicate rather than take hard decisions.
Another key question is how much does Isabella know of the effect that she has on Angelo? This after all, is a woman who has spent her time in the company of nuns, scarcely prepared for the wickedness of this dissolute Vienna. Sophie Thompson is suitably outraged, this is a woman who has no idea of the sexual impulses that she inspires in Angelo. She has the air of the convent around her, she even finds it hard to say the word "virginity", lowering her voice when talking to Claudio. It's easy to make Isabella a strait-laced prig, but Thompson does make her seem very human.
I like Liam Brennan's very Scottish Angelo too. Just as English-accented actors seem to perpetually cast as villains in Hollywood films, if you want to convey moral rectitude with a splash of hypocrisy, go north of the border. Brennan doesn't overplay the role though; while his coldness is such that one can almost believe that is 'urine is of congealed ice', there are glimpses of the human underneath.
Some of the smaller roles are well handled too. There's a nicely judged Lucio from Colin Hurley, the perfect bland of fantasist, gossip and mischief-maker and Alex Hassell's Claudio is more sympathetic than is usual. I should also give full marks for the diction, the Globe is an unforgiving environment but every word is clear.
This is by far the best of the Globe's productions this year, the previous two were disappointing, this is something of a return to form. Perhaps it's a bit too light a touch and one yearns for some examination of the darker themes but it's well acted, well spoken and lovingly staged. Who could want for more?
- Maxwell Cooter