Review: Measure for Measure (Stratford-Upon-Avon)

Gregory Doran directs the last of the three summer plays at Stratford

Hannah Azuonye, Melody Brown and Michael Patrick in Measure for Measure
Hannah Azuonye, Melody Brown and Michael Patrick in Measure for Measure
© Helen Maybanks

There's a reason why Measure for Measure is described as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays": it deals with murky themes such as sexual morality, the abuse of power and personal ethics but never quite comes down unequivocally in favour of truth and fair play. RSC artistic director Gregory Doran boldly takes it on as the last of three summer plays in repertory in Stratford – we've already seen a colourful As You Like It and a gender-swapped The Taming of the Shrew.

His production has an awful lot going for it, not least Doran's trademark clarity of storytelling. Notoriously hard to pin down, the play is never less than comprehensible, the narrative drive compelling and well-paced. The intangibility of the playwright's intentions becomes, in this version, something to be relished and explored, rather than dodged or downplayed.

So when, for instance, the Duke of Vienna unmasks his deputy Angelo for the attempted rape of the noviciate nun Isabella in exchange for her imprisoned brother's life, things are immediately turned on their head with a strong hint that the Duke himself might be about to try it on. It's an intriguing idea that makes for uncomfortable viewing in these times of #MeToo, and it adds a note of darkness to this already seamy tale.

Doran transposes Shakespeare's Vienna to the turn of the 20th Century, when Sigmund Freud was developing his theories of the psyche and artists and writers such as Gustav Klimt and Arnold Schoenberg were the toast of the city. Then, as in Shakespeare's text, there was an underbelly of brothels, lawlessness and decadence beneath the shallow veneer of respectable society, and Doran exploits the parallels to the full.

Stephen Brimson Lewis' designs are full of shadows and foreboding, with vast projected backdrops of everything from sunny cloisters to the central railway station creating a real sense of atmosphere, complemented perfectly by Simon Spencer's dramatic lighting and Paul Englishby's evocative music.

Antony Byrne plays the Duke as headstrong and authoritative but not without his own weaknesses – blinkered credulity among them. Sandy Grierson manfully takes on the tricky task of rendering the deputy Angelo believable in both his public persona of moral rectitude and his behind-closed-doors duplicity. The object of his desire, Isabella, is a strong but hamstrung victim in the hands of Lucy Phelps.

As with the RSC's other summer productions, transferring to the Barbican later in the year, one of the great bonuses of the ensemble approach is the talent spread across the company, from Claire Price's befuddled advisor Escalus to Joseph Arkley's joyfully foppish man about town, and there's a palpable sense of teamwork about the whole event. Of the trio in repertory, Measure for Measure may be the least performed, but on this showing it's far from the weak link of the season.