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Measure for Measure (Susan Elkin reviews)

Measure for Measure

William Shakespeare

Tower Theatre. Stoke Newington

Directed by George Savona

 Star rating: 4

I am very fond of this fascinating but maybe underrated play which I used to teach to A level students. And I have, of course seen it many times including productions featuring famous names. This, however, is the first time I’ve seen it set firmly in period (lovely costumes by Christine Bowmaker). The play is so full of topical themes that most directors can’t resist  transposing it into a setting which looks or feels familiar to modern audiences.

George Savona, though, approaches the play with full confidence in the material. He doesn’t tinker with the text much apart from the occasional pronoun change and we’re firmly in what Shakespeare thought early 17 century Vienna might be like – although actually it’s London in all but name with the brothels, pimps and street life he would have known well.

So why does  Duke Vincentio (Nic Campos) suddenly decide to take a sabbatical and hand control of the city to “snow broth Angelo” (Patrick Shearer)  given that he doesn’t actually leave but disguises himself as a friar and proceeds to interfere in everything that’s going on? Does he really want the city “cleaned up”  but can’t or won’t do it himself?  Or is the whole thing an elaborate – and irresponsible – ruse to expose “well seeming” Angelo’s hypocrisy?  Measure for Measure is full of such questions which this production poses but doesn’t really attempt to answer.

The most disturbing thing in the play is Angelo demanding that Isabella (Ella Dale) yield her virginity to him in return for sparing the life of her brother who’s imprisoned and sentenced to death for “fornication” which has led to the pregnancy of his fiancée, Juliet. It’s well handled in this production not least because Dale is very good indeed. Her Isabella is passionate in her pleading and packs an erotic charge of which she’s unconscious which, of course, is what arouses Angelo. She also does anxiety, determination despair and, eventually joy, most convincingly. And I really liked the way Savola and Dale tackled that dreadful moment at the end of the play when the manipulative, domineering Duke suddenly announces that he’ll marry her. Of course she isn’t going to fall into his arms. Dale walks down stage and stares into the distance clearly indicating shock, alarm and horror.

Campos is strong as the Duke too – especially when he reassumes his own identity in the last act and dominates the action giving orders which are not always reasonable. Another question which lurks in the play is what sort of marriage are Angelo and Marianna likely to have? He had, after all, gone off the idea and had to be forced into it after the famous bed trick masterminded by the Duke which arguably makes him a pimp no better than the ones who have been rounded up and imprisoned. Patrick Shearer’s Angelo is chillingly cold and unempathetic – a commendable performance.

Other noteworthy performances include Sam D’Leon as Pompey. He’s an actor-muso who strums, blows and taps various instruments as part of his mercurial character’s personality and represents the voice of human commonsense in the play. I really liked BeEbop Curacao’s Provost too – quiet, haughty, dignified but ultimately decent. At first I didn’t find Luke Owen’s Lucio sufficiently outrageous but he picks up well in the second half.

In general the verse speaking is impressive and the diction admirably clear which means that the story telling works. And that’s important. Not everyone in the audience will be as familiar with the play as I am.

It’s a refreshing,  thoughtful “straight” account of an intriguing play, It’s also pretty uncompromising at nearly three hours with interval –  but none the worse for that.    

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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