Review: Measure for Measure, Almeida

“Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?”

First things first: this has a double revolve, a double revolve people!! Two bits that move independently from each other! And a table that rises up from the ground! And now breathe… So, from the Shakespeare play I know the best, to one which I’ve never seen before in two days. Measure for Measure sees one of the largest casts ever at at the Almeida, 17 if you’re wondering, and I caught a preview last night.

Set in a Vienna which is riven with sexual depravity and political misdeeds, the Duke of the city decides to leave it in the hands of his hardline deputy Angelo, whilst remaining about incognito in order to see how he fares in restoring order. He disguises himself as a friar where he encounters the highly religious Isabella, who is faced with the prospect of sacrificing her virginity in order to save her brother’s life, that brother having been sentenced to death by Angelo for getting a girl pregnant before they were married. There is then all sorts of gameplaying that ensues, both political and personal, as we rush headlong to the conclusion which may or may not include lots of weddings.

The choice to update it to modern-day is a curious one, and one that hits you in the face as soon as it starts with a quite jarring opening sequence. It really doesn’t feel like a timeless play though: the political intrigues and manoeuvrings feel current, but the moral codes that drive Isabella seem so alien and the ending is just bizarre. The idea of marriage as a cure to moral decline (despite what the Tories may think) and also as a means of punishment is not one that sits well at any point, least of all in this setting. And I felt the production design was a little confused too, with a mixture of period and modern details and costumes that didn’t fit well together. The revolves move quickly enough, in creating a range of locations, aided with some superb lighting the prison cells look excellent, but their endless permutations did grow a little tiresome (the ghosts of Too Close To The Sun have ruined any chance of me taking a revolve

Anna Maxwell Martin displays an astonishing command of the Bard’s language in her Shakespeare debut as the novice nun Isabella, her ‘fie fie FIE’ alone gave me goosebumps; Rory Kinnear made me very excited for his Hamlet at the National Theatre with a nuanced performance of the moral hypocrite Angelo, suggesting there’s more to this puritan than meets the eye, some humanity at least rather than straight villainry; and Lloyd Hutchinson provides great comic relief as the loose-tongued Lucio. Ben Miles is saddled with the extremely difficult part of the Duke who leaves the dirty work of imposing morality onto his people to his deputy, an unknowing fall-guy, and displays incredible selfishness in the finale: he manages ok but needs to lose some of the mannered feel to his verse-reading and allow in some more subtlety into his voice.

Personally, I just don’t think I liked this play at all, and so despite there being strong elements to this production, I could not say I much enjoyed the experience. Oft classified as a problem play, the only problem for me is that I don’t think it is a good play. Working in much ambivalence at the results of the Duke’s machinations at the ‘happy’ ending resolves some of the issues, but I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen the same thing at the recent National’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Underwhelmed by both the Almeida and the Donmar in three days, who’d’ve thunk it!

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3 (but disappointing compared to the usual Almeida standard, very little content in it)

2 Replies to “Review: Measure for Measure, Almeida”

  1. It's a difficult play to be sure, but I think the imposition of a moral code on a society has more resonance today than you give credit for.
    Though I agree that opening pole dancers were out of place and out of keeping with the rest of the production.

  2. After a few days more reflection, and having read the generally quite positive reviews, I still stand by my assertion that this isn't one of Shakespeare's best. I only liked Lucio and he was the only one that got properly punished in the end!! Oh well.
    And those pole dancers…I wouldn't have minded quite so much but there was so little that was in keeping with that opening sequence that it really stuck out like a sore thub for me.

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