Michael Attenborough’s fine production looks at this clash of beliefs and provides some interesting psychological insights. At the heart of the production is a fine performance from Rory Kinnear as Angelo. Rather than the usual authoritarian figure, his is a humble bureaucrat, seemingly promoted beyond his ability and trying to cope with the consequences.
Kinnear’s Angelo twitches and fidgets in anticipation of his meeting with Isabella – hastily sticking in contact lenses before one of their encounters. He’s like a schoolboy going on his first date or, perhaps more realistically, retreating to his bedroom with a pile of dirty magazines. It’s a finely sketched picture of neurosis and one that reinforces the idea that here’s a basically decent man gone wrong – the Duke’s pardoning of him in the last act makes more sense.
There’s an equally strong performance from Anna Maxwell Martin as one of the most dour Isabellas I’ve ever seen. With her hard-set face and black robes, there’s a real touch of religious fanatic about this performance.
In recent years, the Duke’s offer of marriage has looked less and less like the conventional happy ending – and looked positively nightmarish in the National/Theatre de Complicite production of six years ago. Here Martin seems almost disgusted at his presumption. It’s a logical conclusion – after all, this was a woman looking for a life in a convent before Claudio’s imprisonment and her experiences at the hands of Angelo wouldn’t have impressed her that life was better outside the cloistered walls.
Where Attenborough’s production stumbles is that we don’t get much of a sense of why Ben Miles’ Duke gives up the dukedom: is it really to test out Angelo? His disgust at the start when watching two scantily-clad pole dancers suggests that it’s his lack of forbearance with the depravity in his state but it’s not very convincing. However, where Miles scores strongly is in the way that his Duke eagerly seizes the opportunity to become a fixer and play another role.
There’s an excellent Lucio from Lloyd Hutchinson, his Irish accent adding a touch of charm to his tall tales about the Duke’s alleged misdeeds. And Trevor Cooper’s Pompey, looking for all world as if he’d just come from a stint as a bouncer in an East End club, provides much of the comedy.
While this isn’t as dark and psychologically enlightening as other recent versions of the play, Kinnear and Maxwell Martin alone offer compelling reasons to catch it if you can.