Measure for Measure (Young Vic)

Director Joe Hill-Gibbins and designer Miriam Buether cover the stage in inflatable sex dolls

In Joe Hill-Gibbins's Young Vic production of The Changeling, the characters slithered around the stage in jelly, lubricant and lascivious. For his Measure, which starts with a puritan clamp-down in the stews of Vienna, he and designer Miriam Buether create an installation of inflatable sex dolls.

It's a brilliant visual metaphor, the low characters emerging from a thrash of rubber limbs, open mouths and genitals while the moral protagonists — the novitiate nun Isabella (Romola Garai), the absconding Duke (Zubin Varla) and his puritan deputy Angelo (Paul Ready) — stand aside.

After fourteen years of licentiousness, it's time for action. The brothels are closed, the pile of dolls shoved into the prison, on film, behind the set, where they fester inanimate.

Angelo condemns Isabella's brother Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) to death for getting his girlfriend Julietta (Natalie Simpson) pregnant. The Duke disguises himself as a friar in order to stalk the city with an incriminating camera while he encourages the condemned to embrace death.

Everyone goes from one extreme to the other, and retribution is Biblical. Although the play is heavily cut, zipping through at well under two hours, the core of it remains: Garai's luminous, tremulously vocalised Isabella refuses to save her brother by sleeping with his prosecutor. And this dilemma is solved by the Duke employing the old bed-trick: Angelo sleeps with his jilted fiancee (she's lost her dowry), Mariana (Cath Whitefield), thinking she's Isabella.

Measure was always called a problem play because none of it's very nice, nor are the characters. And the ending, in which the Duke assumes Isabella will marry him because he saved Claudio — and this involves more distasteful duplicity with executed prisoners — is just as repellent.

Hill-Gibbins and his cast go with these difficulties and contradictions by simply playing them to the hilt. Varla's Duke is as deviously unpleasant as anyone, not the usual saintly old bugger who's passed the buck for social reform. Ready's Angelo is genuinely turned on by Isabella's glorious language and reasoning, while Garai's piety — at first she lies prostrate on the ground like a a medieval penitent — is only animated when she values her own chastity above her brother's life; is she right to do so?

Lounging on the side, goading them along, is John Mackay's fantastical Lucio, sharing the stage and the screen with the other punks and drabs (though no Mistress Overdone), notably Tom Edden's hilarious Pompey and Raphael Sowole's blank and bespectacled Froth.

The pop art, heavy-breathing rap and sex shop aesthetic of the first scenes is displaced by the grim utilitarianism of a steel-framed, carpeted, plywood-boarded city chamber, very Richard Jones, very Young Vic.

The bad behaviour is all in the prison, merely swept under the carpet, another potent metaphor. And in the weird, unhappy couplings at the end, the old lord Escalus — reallocated by gender to Sarah Malin — is lumbered with the mountainous tattooed drunk Barnadine, the man who couldn't be bothered to wake up and be hanged.

Measure for Measure runs at the Young Vic until 14 November