“Which is the wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?”
You don’t get many Measure for Measures for the pound, in the grand scheme, so Outgoing Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole probably thought he was onto a winner in choosing it to be part of his final summer season and indeed the last play he’ll direct as AD. But these things come in threes and we’ve been blessed with two other major productions – Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language version shook the rafters of the Barbican earlier this year and Joe Hill-Gibbons promises to do the same at the Young Vic with Romola Garai in the Autumn.
But no matter, we can be assured of diverse interpretations – for the first two at least – and Dromgoole’s version for the Globe does precisely what he does best, unfussily traditional productions blessed with a striking clarity (best evidenced by his superlative 2013 A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Here, we get to see Mariah Gale, one of our finest young Shakespeareans, deliver a stunning account of one of Shakespeare’s more complex female characters in Isabella and we also bear witness to Dominic Rowan ascending to the leading man status (with which he has arguably merely flirted before) as Vincentio.
Rowan’s Duke of Vienna has become appalled at the level of immorality in his city and so opts to retire from public life into hiding, allowing his puritanical deputy – Kurt Egyiawan’s wonderfully clenched-jawed Angelo – to impose the letter of the law. Young gentleman Claudio finds himself caught up in this censorious crackdown leaving his sister, the novitiate Isabella, to beg for clemency. Her virginal purity threatens to uncork all of Angelo’s repressed impurities though and through a series of bed tricks and head tricks, the disguised Vincentio seeks to ensure justice is served.
Though oft labelled a problem play, Dromgoole seeks to lighten the mood of Measure for Measure beyond even dark comedy. The licentiousness of Viennese society in amusingly realised in amongst the groundlings, Trevor Fox’s Pompey and Brendan O’Hea’s Garnonised Lucio observe a keenly comic edge to the subplots and under his habit and tonsure, Rowan’s fake friar is really quite funny indeed as he manipulates the action with great benevolence and more than a twinkle in his eye (a quick side note, he should keep his hair and beard dyed dark forever, for – you know – reasons ;-)).
It does mean that Vincentio does come across less autocratic than commonsensical in the final act, which plays down some of the moral murkiness of the plot, but in the musicality and conviction with which Gale evinces Isabella’s virtue makes complete sense of this woman and the WTAF gasp she gives at the end actually works perfectly. So an agreeably fitting finale for Dromgoole although as with any farewell tour – just ask Cher – it goes on until next April when he’ll hand the reins over to Emma Rice to herald what could be a fascinating new era for this iconic venue.