Measure for Measure’s themes of sex, death, and politics are told in such dark terms that the happy comic resolution, which bows to historical convention, seems to belong to a different story. As one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ it demands a secure interpretation to provide sense to the denouement and display the many contradictions and subtleties of the characters.
Roxana Silbert’s direction of the RSC’s production at The Swan Theatre uses S&M and sleights of hand as vehicles to steer through the political game of over-sexed Vienna. Leathered, chained, and PVCed proportionate to their sexual indulgence, the characters’ entrances hint that the sexual content of the play will be as visceral as can be imagined. However, the costumes are about as far as the raunchiness goes and the rest of the production’s storytelling is handed back to the language. The production is full of visual treats such as bondage paraphernalia that promise much. However, these props are never quite utilised. In instances they provide disappointment or confusion over the conviction of the interpretation, and in other moments, work brilliantly and hint just enough to leave the questions the play asks as open and unanswerable.
Raymond Coulthard’s Duke treads this ambiguous line more than most. His audience banter and magic tricks border on a pantomime that is at odds with the “duke of dark corners”, and yet his charm and good looks say much of the kind of politician he is: clever and unwilling to be the face of a bad clean-up campaign. Another such instance is the notoriously difficult final denouement. As the Duke takes Isabella as his wife, despite knowing well what her nunnery means to her, Isabella (Jodie McNee) stares blankly back and is as shocked as the rest of us at the Duke’s proposal. Silbert doesn’t offer an explanation to the end of the play, and perhaps the complexity of the play means she doesn’t have to.
The star has to be Jamie Ballard’s Angelo. His disbelief in the power of sexual desire and moral commitment to the state has such earnest conviction that his first encounter with Isabella can only ignite a painful pity. He is a hypocrite, but certainly an accidental one. Political curtness, cowardly reserve, and embarrassment at his own body’s needs combine for a beautiful performance that questions the ethical boundaries we all place ourselves in.
A gorgeous, if rare, moment of sexual tension comes as Isabella pleads for her brother’s life. She touches his chest and he delicately removes her hand, allowing an electric moment of uncertainty and self-denial to pass through him. Desperate, vulnerable, bitter and devoted to his duty, Ballard portrays all of these whilst concealing these tempests to just the flicker of an eye. Whilst the rest of the company deliver solid performances, it is Ballard who manages to contain both the many textures of the play and Silbert’s interpretation.
Those seeking a more thorough examination of the embedded intricacies of the play should look elsewhere, but for those after an evening of Shakespeare, well performed and entertaining from start to finish, this production is worth a visit.
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