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Measure for Measure review – a joyously comedic take on a challenging play

The production runs at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Hattie Ladbury in Measure for Measure
© Helen Murray

Due in part to its ambiguity of tone and uncertain ending, scholars tend to classify Measure for Measure as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays". In the early 1600s however, when it was first performed, it was perceived as a comedy. That certainly seems to be the idea that Blanche McIntyre picked up and ran with when directing this new production in the Globe's unfailingly magical Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I'd never previously thought of Measure for Measure as a joyous romp but that, for the most part, is what we have here, and it's a bit of a treat.

Despite the Viennese setting and Italianate character names, McIntyre has placed this version in the 1970s UK of the Three-Day Week, power outages (a blackout early in act one presages the necessary use of the Wanamaker's famed candlelight) and ghastly fashion. There is an underlying thrum of despair that lends a melancholic frisson to the convoluted plot machinations but also throws the comic moments (of which there are many) into sharper, more desperate relief. One of the most impressive things about this admirably clear and fleet take on this most knotty of texts is how the dark and light co-exist so seamlessly.

The ruling Duke who absents himself from public service in order to observe in disguise the unvarnished day to day life of an ongoingly corrupt metropolis, is now a woman. A completely brilliant Hattie Ladbury, driving the whole show, is still referred to as a Duke, but the pronouns have been changed to she/her, which adds an extra layer of complexity. Isabella, the pious but fiery novice nun that both the Duke and her proxy-in-power Angelo have designs upon, is given an appealing freshness by Georgia Landers, whose ability to go from nought to ten in the emotional stakes is impressive yet never feels overdone and rings entirely true. Her extreme youth makes the scene where Ashley Zhangazha's Angelo tries to force himself upon her all the more disturbing.

The production's biggest issue is that, in going for comic broke, the relationship between Isabella and Angelo feels under-explored. Zhangazha is excellent but is given too little stage time to really establish the character. Josh Zaré as Isabella's condemned brother fares a bit better but still feels like more of a minor figure than usual. Eloise Secker is genuinely moving as Mariana, the wronged woman who loves him, but ultimately makes a bigger impression as a comically sleazy Pompey.

Similarly, Ishia Bennison does terrific work as a grave, authoritative Escalus but authentically brings the house down as totally plastered prisoner Barnadine, refusing to be taken to his execution because he's been up all night on the lash. Gyuri Sarossy's hopeless executioner, forever getting his axe stuck in all the wrong places, is another gem. As a pair of radically contrasting policemen, Daniel Millar probably comes closest to ticking all boxes: as a likably blokey Provost, like a character from The Sweeney, and then as a wildly, jaw-droppingly incompetent and funny Elbow, powered by spite, swagger, and a loudhailer he can't quite get to grips with.

For all the mirth though, it's Ladbury's witty, surprisingly vulnerable Duke that really sticks in the memory. Despite her power and wealth, it never feels that this Duke is ever fully comfortable in her own skin, and her final attempted wooing of Isabella retains the possibility that this will all blow up in her face. McIntyre doesn't attempt to finish the story for them though, and the final, ambiguous moments are intriguing if not fully satisfying.

The abuse of power by men over women seems more timely now than ever and this production does more than pay lip service to that. At key moments actors stand in the centre of the Pit and directly address us, as though we are jury members in a court.

The combination of this with riotous good fun is a tricky balancing act but McIntyre and her team manage it superbly. A fascinating, entertaining take on a challenging but compelling piece. Warmly recommended.

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