Turn of the century Vienna is a ripe setting for the RSC’s production of Measure for Measure. These were confusing times, when Egon Schiele was getting banned for his explicit nudes, yet in private, collectors were paying vast sums for his works.
Embodying this double standard, is nun Isabella. She is faced with a dilemma: save her brother from execution, on the condition of sleeping with slimy ‘acting CEO’ Angelo, or let him die. This whole question can, in other productions, appear anachronistic (both the brother’s ‘crime’ for having sex out of wedlock and his sister’s struggle with chastity). Yet it makes sense here, not simply as her horror of sex, but having impossible standards to live up to. Pale and remote, Lucy Phelp’s Isabella is the mirror image of Angelo (Sandy Grierson). His blood “is very snow-broth” and the same could be said of her, as she clings to her pedestal. She loses control and violently slams down her brother’s fears of dying.
Measure for Measure is a bit of a brain workout, and many scenes feel like a debate on justice and morality. Parts are staged like a courtroom drama, such as when brothel-keeper David Ajao’s Pompey thumps down his fist on the table like an over-excited attorney. The mirrored backdrop creates a disorientating feeling, sometimes reflecting and sometimes revealing, like being in a hall of mirrors.
The humiliation the Viennese citizens suffer under the new strict regime is less successfully portrayed in this production. Mistress Overdone (Graeme Brookes) is sent to prison but is played more as panto dame, her chains sending her captors reeling round the stage. And at a time when our Home Secretary has said she wants prisoners to “literally feel terror” under harsher prison sentences, this could have had some frightening resonances. The text is violent, something which isn’t brought out on stage.
The right setting, the right cast, and perfectly balanced, it at times falls prey to the repression it so well illustrates. There’s room for taking more risks, but as a strange story of the double standards our leaders and heroes live by, it’s told very well.
Measure for Measure, Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS. Tickets £10-£59, until 16 January 2020.
Last Updated 22 November 2019