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Measure for Measure (Bath & Stratford)

By • West End
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With Measure for Measure, Shakespeare, like Dante before him, seems to have found himself in the middle of a dark wood.

Sex, which is at the heart of this problematic play, is here an 'unmanageable, destabilising, even degrading force'; the possibility of lasting happiness a fantasy and the final redemption and resolution of a Twelfth Night, a dream.

Kevin Rigdon's elegantly spare design helps make this darkness visible - this Vienna is a place of black and prison bars. The play opens with the ducal throne - seat of justice and power - centre stage. Behind it, dressed in sombre Jacobean dress, are courtiers, arrayed like Rembrandt's Night Watch.

But to universal shock, the Duke announces his immediate departure - why and where he is going is not explained - and the elevation, in his absence, of his deputy, the deeply pious Angelo. It is the first of many mysteries. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours that follow, the play shuttles between courtroom, prison, nunnery and brothel in an intellectually rigorous, lexically tortuous examination of the nature of justice, of authority and of forgiveness.

Hall brings clarity and rigour but, to paraphrase Ken Tynan, Hall's productions can too often elicit admiration, rather than tears of laughter or grief. It doesn't help that Richard Dormer and Andrea Riseborough bring little more to their roles than cold anger, with Riseborough an especially unsympathetic Isabella, not helped by vocal monotony. Dormer initially impresses, he handles the text well, but fails to show a man suddenly and completely overwhelmed by lust.

By contrast, James Laurenson's Duke is merely testy, neither a Machiavellian, nor misguided, as in Roger Allam's 1980s incarnation. The resulting ambiguity is unsatisfactory and only heightens the feeling that the author hadn't fully worked out this most problematic of the problem comedies.

Laurenson, though, handles verse and prose with ease and intelligence, and there are some other winning performances, notably from Teddy Kempner as the bawd Pompey. Also excellent is Michael Mears as a laconic, slightly mournful Lucio.

When, at the end, the Duke asks Isabella, a novice, for her hand, those assembled react in shock. It's a defining moment in a troubled evening.

- Pete Wood


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