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RSC Measure for Measure at the Barbican | Review

Measure for Measure - Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC
Measure for Measure – Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

This production of Measure for Measure is, as the show’s programme would have it, set in ‘Freud’s Vienna’ of the 1900s, where strict moral codes were given plenty of lip service but privately, all sorts of things went on under the bedsheets. This does beg the question: why set the production in an era so comparable to what things were like in Shakespeare’s day? It does come across somewhat as reinventing the wheel. It does, at least, fit the storyline – the staunchly Catholic Austria-Hungary would soon be replaced by something rather more secular, and if anything, it gives the Royal Shakespeare Company’s cast rather different costumes to put on.

I found it difficult to engage with the show, particularly in the first half (perhaps familiarity really does breed contempt), and it felt at times as though the show was going through the motions rather than providing the audience with an acting masterclass. Angelo (Sandy Grierson) is never melodramatic in his scheming as the play’s antagonist, but he comes across as so nonchalant that it is difficult to believe he is running the city in his capacity as deputy to the Duke of Vienna (Antony Byrne) with much, if any, effectiveness.

Perhaps that is simply what the production is going for: a portrayal of spiteful and weak government (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). But I can’t help thinking it would have made for a more absorbing evening if Angelo were significantly more outwardly menacing: keeping one’s emotions circumspect is what some people indeed do, but it doesn’t make for great theatre. Graeme Brookes makes the most of the roles of Mistress Overdone and the prisoner Barnadine, and while Byrne’s Duke is convincingly authoritative, the standout for me was Lucy Phelps as Isabella, a ‘novice nun’, thoroughly expressive without ever overdoing it, and with perfectly understandable reactions to various points in the narrative as they arise, right to the very last moment of the play.

The set (Stephen Brimson Lewis) includes some good backdrops and projections, the most memorable being one of a railway station and another of what the Shakespeare text refers to as ‘the moated grange’ (that is, a house in the country with a moat around it). Claudio (James Cooney), made to wear a sign with the word ‘lecher’ in block capitals around his neck (thus ensuring shaming of men as well as women such as Amy Trigg’s Juliet, Claudio’s betrothed), is so desperate not to face the death penalty being imposed on him that he persistently and irritatingly begs for his life to the point where if this were a Hollywood movie set in the United States, gunshots would have been fired forthwith. Still, can’t fault Cooney’s acting, or that of Joseph Arkley as Lucio, outrageous with a capital O.

Without giving too much away, there were moments that much of the press night audience found mildly amusing, and it was good to see (whatever one’s sense of humour) the dark and deep plotline having elements of light relief thrown in. Seven musicians play live, adding an extra layer of richness to the production. The second half did better than the first at holding my attention, and this is ultimately a valiant effort at bringing a familiar story to life in a fresh way.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

When a novice nun is compromised by a corrupt official who offers to save her brother from execution in return for sex, she has no idea where to turn for help. When she threatens to expose him, he tells her that nobody would believe her.

Lucy Phelps plays Isabella in RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran’s production of Measure for Measure as part of the RSC London season at the Barbican, running until 16 January 2020. Lucy is joined by David Ajao (Pompey), Joseph Arkley (Lucio), Hannah Azuonye (Angelo’s Secretary/Singer), Patrick Brennan (Abhorson/Friar Thomas), Graeme Brookes (Mistress Overdone/Barnadine, Melody Brown (Kate Keepdown/Justice), Antony Byrne (Duke), James Cooney (Claudio), Tom Dawze (Froth), Sandy Grierson (Angelo), Amanda Harris (Provost), Karina Jones (Sister Francisca), Sophie Khan Levy (Mariana), Alexander Mushore (Gentleman), Michael Patrick (Elbow), Claire Price (Escalus) and Amy Trigg (Juliet).

The set and costumes for Measure for Measure are designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, with lighting by Simon Spencer. Music is composed by Paul Englishby. Sound is by Steven Atkinson, movement by Lucy Cullingford and fights are by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.

RSC: Measure For Measure
Barbican, London
Booking to 16th January 2020

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