Shakespeare’s most problematic problem play proves tricky to modernize, although strong performances from castmembers shine through
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” for a reason. Neither tragedy nor comedy, insufficiently historical to be a history, it is as difficult to categorize as it is to modernise. Its tanglingly complex plot, in combination with some deeply Elizabethan values, makes staging it in a way compelling to modern audiences a sizeable challenge.
It’s also quite impressively difficult to summarise… but the gist of Shakespeare’s original is that Vienna is corrupt, being defamed all over Europe and sinking worse into its corruption. To better examine this corruption, its Duke Vincentio pretends to leave the city, instead remaining disguised so as to better examine things from a lower level. He leaves a deeply religious judge, Angelo in charge in his stead; Angelo quickly falls prey to the corruption. The Duke returns at the end, removing his disguise, where everything ought to be resolved, but is not.
Director Odette Baber Straw’s 2019/2020 production of the play takes its inspiration from the ripples in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Measure for Measure is, at its core, a play about abuses of power; to set it in the offices of Measured Investments, an investment banking company, and have its acting CEO Angelo misuse his power to try and convince one of the workers, Isabella, to sleep with him, feels chillingly familiar.
The office setting provides both successes and shortcomings. Michelle Spielberg’s set, with its minimalist white furniture reminiscent of any modern, sleek office space, is brilliant – particularly effective is the raised dais that provides the office space for the company’s CEO, as a powerful symbol of the levels of power in the workplace that are very much taken advantage of.
In this production, Vincentio the Duke, played by Harry Burke, becomes Vincentio the Boss, and disguises himself as a policeman/security guard rather than a priest; George Solomou’s Angelo the judge, with his deeply religious views, becomes Angelo the acting CEO. The exposition provided by two news reports about the company at the start of both acts is a lovely little nod to workplace scandals that became such a regular feature of headlines in recent years, as well as an acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s corrupt Vienna.
However, the retention of some of the play’s deeply Elizabethan moments leads to some complications in the modern setting. An audience can imagine a universe where religious views of one’s boss are enough to get an individual fired, but Angelo being able to condemn Claudio (Saul Barrett) to death for having a child out of wedlock when he’s only his boss is a little harder to conceive of. It’s also a little confusing to understand what role exactly Vincentio is playing, until all is revealed in the final scenes.
I think the show might have benefited from a full removal of the plotline surrounding the brothel madam Mistress Overdone (played though she was to plummy perfection by Saul Barrett), given that the investment banking industry has little official interaction with brothels – I felt particularly lost in a scene with the pimp/office worker, Pompey Bum, and an irate Constable, accusing someone of sleeping with his wife…? (As you see, I am still a little lost).
Nonetheless, I do understand the need for levity in a play on such dark topics, and Alice Murray’s Constable Elbow provides excellent comic relief when she makes her appearances onstage.
Priya Edwards is fantastic as Isabella in an impeccably tailored suit, taking no prisoners as she refuses all Angelo’s advances. Edwards brilliantly demonstrates Isabella’s staunchness in her religious beliefs, such that she would rather lose her brother than her virginity, to the extent that Isabella’s original role as a nun is unnecessary to the understanding of why it would be such a condemnation for her.
George Solomou’s performance of the repugnant Angelo’s slide into moral turpitude is only hindered by the speed of his speech when he becomes agitated. The growing agony on his face, both in his interactions with Isabella and when his despicable use of his position as a sort of acting CEO of Measured Investment looks to be revealed, is excellent – we can practically see the stain grow upon his character.
Indeed, the performances from the whole cast were strong, honed by the touring performances over Christmas, particularly with regards to physicality throughout – Harry Burke in particular, in his transitions from high to low status characters, was instantly transformed by his physicality alone – the policeman’s helmet on his head a mere add-on, albeit an amusing one.
I also have to make reference to Dáire Toal’s superb original music: each moment of transition onstage or between scenes is slickly lubricated by writhing basslines, while the softer, more intimate scenes were lit from within with sultry guitar-based tracks.
Ultimately, although the adaptation struggles with some of the more distinctly Elizabethan moral elements, the relevance that it lends to the play’s consideration of abuses of power, and the excellent performance by its castmembers mean that this still a one to watch.