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Measure for Measure at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

An exhilarating evening at the uniquely atmospheric Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Watching Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure here is the closest one can get to actually being at the playback in the London of 1604. For this experience in time travel, we should be grateful to the American Sam Wanamaker who battled against all the odds to get this replica built. This intimate galleried auditorium, magically lit by real candles, with the musicians in the top gallery playing period instruments, is the place to immerse oneself in Shakespeare’s world. The 2021/22 winter season opened last night with a moving, mirth full and magnificent production of Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure at The Globe with Hattie Ladbury as Duke. Photo credit Helen Murray.
Measure for Measure at The Globe with Hattie Ladbury as Duke. Photo credit Helen Murray.

In director Blanche McIntyre’s clear, compelling and concise version we are offered a Measure for Measure as a melodramatic farce. Part Indecent Proposal part Orton’s Loot the audience is taken on a roller coaster ride which careers between rollicking slapstick low comedy and melodramatic psychosexual power struggles, which stops just this side of tragedy. The indecent proposal at the heart of the play is what drives the action. The triangle involving The Duke (Hattie Ledbury), Angelo (Ashley Zhangazha) and Isabella (Georgia Landers) is the heart of the play’s serious main plot. The Duke in effect abdicates to see if power corrupts. It does. The play turns on the sex and power imbalance between Angelo and Isabella. Shakespeare’s writing here reaches magnificent heights of rhetorical display. The ensuing authority versus mercy debate is on a par with the corresponding exchange in The Merchant of Venice, it’s that good. Luckily for us, the clarity of diction and enunciation from the cast is such that we keep up with every syllable of every word. A magnificent achievement.

This high court drama, so to speak, is balanced by the farcical subplot which ensures that Measure for Measure is always engaging, full of variety and thoroughly entertaining.

Ingenious costume design from the talented Sian Harris does much of the heavy lifting. For example, you don’t need to know what a provost (Daniel Miller) was, because in this production he wears a policeman’s uniform, so we infer that he’s some kind of authority figure. Time and again Harris finds ingenious contemporary equivalents to make the play live for us now. As when the messenger (Ashley Zhangazha) rushes on stage in full motorbike leathers and crash helmet. And just as innovative are the props. Constable Elbow (Daniel Miller again) gets much comic mileage from a loud hailer and a phallic rubber truncheon. Shakespeare’s naming of character is always telling. Constable Elbow, Mistress Overdone a bawd, Froth a foolish gentleman, Angelo enough said.

I’ve mentioned the versatility of Daniel Miller who plays three parts. Ishia Bennison goes one better and plays four. Her performances exemplify the plays shifting of tone and tempo from intense drama to low comedy. At one point she ends a scene and then re-enters moments later in a different costume playing a completely different character. Her linguistic shifts are stunning. From the broad Lancashire of Mistress Overdone to the slurred mispronunciations of the drunken prisoner Barnardine. The latter received the loudest audience appreciation. I endorse the director’s playfulness, inventiveness and ingenuity. If Shakespeare is to live for us now then we must adapt the play to the time as it were. Otherwise, it will be just a museum piece.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production of Measure for Measure. It captures both the intensity of the Angelo and Isabella encounter at the same time as it conveys the farcical comedy of everyday life. Seen in the evocative setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse it is a holiday treat to relish.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Britain is a nation on a knife-edge. Increasing inflation, surging unemployment, an energy catastrophe, identity crisis and persistent political scandal. It’s 1975.

In London, the Duke abandons the unravelling city, leaving authoritarian Angelo in power. When he starts policing sexual freedom, Isabella is drawn from the safe space of her convent to rescue her brother from death under the new laws. Only his freedom comes at a price: her.

What is she – and society – willing to lose in the fight for justice?

Blanche McIntyre (Hymn, Almeida) directs Shakespeare’s exploration of the corruption of power with razor-sharp wit and thrilling suspense.


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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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