Review – Measure for Measure, Royal Shakespeare Company, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 4th July 2019

Measure for MeasureOne of the most rewarding aspects about watching Shakespeare in the 21st century is to realise how little has changed. RSC supremo Gregory Doran has set his new version of Measure for Measure in the Vienna of the 1900s, a time and a place of louche decadence, during the final knockings of the Habsburg Empire. The play may have been written over 400 years ago, but it was equally relevant a hundred years ago, and indeed today – particularly with the #metoo generation in mind, where (you could say) the puritan Angelo is just as bad* as your Harvey Weinsteins* of today (*allegedly). (*I didn’t say that).

Duke and AngeloAs an introduction to the plot, in case you don’t know… The Duke of Vienna has had enough of the limelight so leaves the administration of the city in the capable hands of his deupty, Angelo, and his assistant Escalus. Whilst Escalus is a safe pair of hands, and can be expected to mete out justice fairly, Angelo reveals himself to be a puritan fanatic. He unearths old laws that prohibit anything bawdy, and as a result closes all the whorehouses, and sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for having got his fiancé with child. Given that she was a willing participant in the exercise, that’s more than a bit tough. Claudio’s friend Lucio tells the condemned man’s sister Isabella about her brother’s fate, so she attends on Angelo to try to persuade him to change his mind. But Angelo’s price to preserve Claudio’s life is more costly on a personal level than Isabella is prepared to pay… Aha.

Lucio, Claudio and ProvostMeasure for Measure is delightfully uncategorisable; hence its consideration as one of Shakespeare’s three Problem Plays – and probably the most accessible and relatable of those works. Broadly it’s a comedy, but with some very savage aspects, and an ending that doesn’t comply with the usual multi-marriage tie-ups you expect from the genre. It has the bawdiness of the Merry Wives, the clownish policing of Much Ado, the plea for mercy of the Merchant of Venice and the uncompromisingly uncertain final resolution of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It satirises puritanism more sinisterly than Shakespeare’s treatment of Malvolio, and it reveals hypocrisy like the best Molière. It even cheerfully beheads a prisoner whose time hasn’t come yet.

Claudio and IsabellaThe 1900s setting works well enough, with hints of Viennese waltzes, frock coats and painted trollops, although the timelessness of the story and its quiet, understated horror, means you quickly forget about the outward show, and, to be honest, it could be anytime, anyplace. Deep down, it’s all about the powerplay between Angelo and Isabella, and the Duke’s subsequent devious plans to right the wrongs without being castigated for handing over control. The contrast between the Angelo’s clinical brutality and, say, the jokey shenanigans of the pimp Pompey or the foolish constable Elbow, is stark and uncomfortable; but they do very successfully show that it takes all sorts to make a dukedom. Only Lucio bridges the gap between the classes, being both educated and courtly, but also absurd and foppish; whilst he mixes in the high circles of power, and, with apologies for mixing my analogies here, like Icarus he flies too close to the sun.

Escalus, Angelo and JusticeThis is a fine, strong, satisfying production with great performances across the board. Lucy Phelps’ Isabella is a hearty, determined young woman but who won’t allow her moral standards to slip. It’s a great portrayal of a small cog in a big machine, out of her depth when the consequences of her actions become clear. There’s a great scene between Ms Phelps and James Cooney, as the forlorn, clueless Claudio, when he’s uncomprehending as to why she wouldn’t make this sacrifice for him and she’s furious that he should even ask such a thing; two little people lost in a vast, cruel world.

Pompey and FrothSandy Grierson is excellent as the cold, calculating Angelo; looking like a cross between Uriah Heep and Vladimir Putin, and about as trustworthy as both of them, he assumes mock humility at first but is quick to gain ruthless confidence. It’s a measure of the seriousness of his performance that when he cowers on the floor, trembling at the prospect of a night of extorted rapture, that we don’t find it funny, like we would Malvolio. This Angelo allows us the wry smiles of recognising hypocrisy but no more; even when he is condemned to marriage with Mariana, we don’t laugh at his woe. Mr Grierson gives us a superb portrayal of a man who is ugly on the inside; a chancer who spreads misery where he can but is powerless against true authority.

BarnadineClaire Price is fantastic as Escalus, beautifully upright, clear and decisive in her pronouncements; Joseph Arkley imbues Lucio with true upper-crust mischief making; and there are brilliant comic turns from Michael Patrick as the overzealous but under-accurate Elbow, and David Ajao as the wisecracking wide boy Pompey. Great support also from Amanda Harris as the surprisingly kindly Provost, Graeme Brookes as the flustered Mistress Overdone and the bizarrely assertive Barnadine, and Sophie Khan Levy as the much-wronged Mariana.

DukeBut it’s Antony Byrne’s magnificent portrayal of the Duke, with his innate authority at court and his overwhelmingly positive masquerade as Friar Lodowick that knits together all the threads of this superb production, full equally of humour and underplayed horror, and that helps to make this – in my humble opinion – the RSC’s best revival this year so far. Plenty of opportunities to see it, as it’s playing at Stratford until the end of August and then is on tour throughout the country until April, including the Christmas season at the Barbican. An excellent production of this perpetually relevant play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – As You Like It, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 21st February 2019

As You Like ItThe prospect of seeing another production of As You Like It always fills me with excitement because it’s one of Shakespeare’s true crowd-pleasers. The cheeky, jokey relationship between Rosalind and Celia; the challenge of how to characterise the melancholy Jaques; the knowing sniggering of Orlando chatting up Ganymede when we all know it’s Rosalind; the rustic tomfoolery of Touchstone, Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. Then there are also those little heart-warming moments, like Adam pledging allegiance to Orlando, and Orlando’s subsequent care for Adam when his life is almost at an end; and Celia facing up to her vicious father and refusing to leave Rosalind’s side. There’s a lot of kind friendship going on here.

Celia and RosalindI confess; I struggled to identify director Kimberley Sykes’ vision for this production. My only clue came from an article in the programme about how plays such as these would have been very much performed to and for the audience in Shakespeare’s time. As a result, there’s quite a bit of fourth-wall breaking. It’s as though they’ve taken Rosalind’s final speech, an epilogue delivered directly to the audience, and worked backward from there.

Orlando wrestlingTo be fair, some of this works extremely well. Whilst Orlando and “Ganymede” are wooing each other and pretending to get married, Celia joins us at the edge of the stage and casts tutting glances at individual audience members as if to share the thought, jeez how much longer is this going on? She grabs a programme off someone and tries to identify who’s on stage – and then she finds a funny photo in the programme and cackles with inappropriate laughter whilst pointing at it and others, just like an ill-behaved audience member might. Personally, I found that “irreverent audience member-act” hilarious. In another scene, Touchstone’s camera lens disintegrated so he gave it to an audience member to hold. On yet another occasion, Rosalind and Celia tried to outstare a gentleman in the front row. All these little incidents really helped to build a relationship between cast and crowd. Less so the moment shortly before the interval when Orlando got four people out of the audience to hold up pieces of paper that, when put together, read “Rosalind”. Rarely has so much audience disruption been caused for so little dramatic or comic gain.

Duke FrederickOther effects bludgeon us into some form of reaction. Touchstone is dressed throughout in homage to Scottish/American magician/comedian Jerry Sadowitz. Don’t ask me why. The arrival by the banished characters at the Forest of Arden is marked by the stage lights glowing bright, removal of the backdrop so we can see all the backstage gubbins, members of the cast walking round chatting willy-nilly, and a disembodied voice requiring Miss Stanton to appear on stage to perform her All The World’s a Stage routine (even though we hadn’t got that far into the play yet). Again, don’t ask me why. Many productions do away with the appearance of Hymen, the god of marriage, in the final scene, because it heavily detracts from any sense of realism. Not so with this production, where the stage is dominated by the biggest Hymen (if you’ll pardon the expression) you’re ever likely to see. Out of all proportion, it’s grotesque and ungainly and looks like an accident in a papier-mâché factory.

Forest of ArdenThis is a very strange evening at the theatre. On the one hand, you have some superb performances and a few laugh out loud moments that really take your breath away. On the other hand, the production has a strange energy-sapping effect, and by the time Rosalind/Ganymede has engineered the four-way marriage celebrations, you really just want to get out for some fresh air. Although the production aims to bring the audience and play closer together, it’s only Rosalind, Orlando and Celia who sustain your interest. The plights and intrigues of the other characters can go hang for all you care. Mrs Chrisparkle wore her bored look for much of the evening – OK I realise, that might have been because of me, but I sense (and hope) it was the Arden brigade.

JaquesOn a lighter note, the love triangle of Touchstone, Audrey and William is enhanced by having Tom Dawze’s William act as a sign-language interpreter between the other two characters; Charlotte Arrowsmith delivers all Audrey’s lines by sign language and this excellent element of inclusivity lends an extra dimension and weight to their relationship. Recently we’ve seen quite a lot of gender-bending in productions of the classics, and this production features female portrayals of Jaques, Le Beau, Amiens and Martext, all of which help you to see the familiar characters from a different perspective.

TouchstoneAnd there’s also a female Silvius – now portrayed as Silvia. This means Phoebe is now being pestered by a lovelorn young shepherdess; fair enough. However, the appropriateness of this change all unravels at the final scene. Ganymede promises to marry Phoebe if ever he marries woman. But when it’s revealed that he is a she, Phoebe’s reaction is if sight and shape be true, why then my love adieu – in other words, “oh no, you’re a girl, I only fancy boys”. Nevertheless she’s still instantly married off to a girl! I appreciate that the words of Hymen could imply that he has no problem with equal marriage – which, of course, is great – but it’s being imposed on Phoebe and for me, it didn’t make sense and it didn’t sit comfortably.

RosalindLet’s concentrate on the good things. Lucy Phelps as Rosalind – what a tremendous performance! A perfect blend of mischief and nobility, of girlish goofiness and authoritative courtier. Whether she be sharing a joke with her friend or trying to extricate herself from very serious situations, she constantly reveals little insights about her character and she is so completely believable. Very funny, very dignified; Ms Phelps absolutely nails it.

Rosalind SubmergedSophie Khan Levy, too, is perfect as Celia; long-suffering, easily giving in to temptation, and wickedly sarcastic. I loved how she transformed herself into a rock; and how her cynical side just melted away when she encounters the dreamy Jacques de Bois. She and Ms Phelps form a terrific double-act, both comic and dramatic. David Ajao’s Orlando is a simple, good-hearted soul, exuding enthusiasm in everything he does, and a great match for Ms Phelps as neither can contain their giggly romantic interest in each other.

CeliaSophie Stanton’s Jaques is a very intelligent reading of the role, full of wistful thought and interrupted emotion; calmly and unhysterically delivered. She doesn’t recite All the World’s a Stage like some powerful, previously well thought-out party piece, but as though the idea is coming to her as she says it; a concept developing in her brain as she works her way through the journey of An Average Life. The staging of What shall he have that kill’d the deer is less successful; the combination of Ms Stanton’s eerie vocal delivery and Graeme Brookes’ First Lord’s cervine scampering around the stage makes the audience uncertain whether to laugh or be concerned for their mental wellbeing.

OrlandoAntony Byrne excels at the dual roles of the two Dukes, one nice, one nasty; and I enjoyed the way the one became the other at that otherwise strange border crossing into the Forest of Arden. Sandy Grierson’s eccentric and perceptive Touchstone is a lot to take on board, and treads a fine line between annoyingly comic and comically annoying – which is perfectly reasonable for that character. Richard Clews’ Adam is a noble and moving performance – with a delightful singing voice too, and there’s a nicely bumbling characterisation of Corin by Patrick Brennan. Emily Johnstone’s Madame Le Beau steals every scene in the first act as she teeters into the sinking grass with her stilettos and speaks her servilities with wonderful emptiness.

Rosalind and SilviaThere’s no doubt that the fantastic cast carry this rather underwhelming production. It could do with a few more cuts and a little tightening up; at just over three hours including the interval it is a little trying at times. However, it’s worth paying the ticket price to see Lucy Phelps alone! In repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31st August and then across the country between September and April 2020.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis