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 – Dido, Queen of Carthage, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 21st September 2017

Dido Queen of CarthageHere’s a riddle for you: When is a Press Night not a Press Night? Answer: when it’s a matinee! A 1pm start for a slice of Christopher Marlowe heralded the beginning of a long but satisfying day in Stratford surrounded by the Royal Shakespeare Company in all its glory (or, when it came to Coriolanus in the evening, all its gory, but that’s a matter for another day).

DQOC DidoI don’t know what the prospect of Dido, Queen of Carthage, by the aforementioned Marlowe, first staged circa 1590, does for you, gentle reader. This is the first time I’ve seen this play, having read it when I was knee high to a Punic warrior and probably not understanding a blind word of it. So I came to it with no preconceptions, other than the fact that “Dido” always makes think of a dodo and I’m not sure I would want to see a play about a dead old bird.

DQOC Nicholas DayDon’t let that put you off! Kimberley Sykes’ exciting and visually eloquent production brings this rather hidden classic bang up to date, including scenes of drug abuse and homoeroticism – and that’s just in the first five minutes. The play opens with a grand gentleman, white linen suit reflecting his white flowing locks, like Santa Claus in a snow drift, wandering through a sandy landscape, out-staring any member of the audience who dares to stare back. This is Jupiter, annoyed that Juno has taken umbrage at his dalliance with Ganymede, a pouting, svelte young man who has difficulty keeping his top on. Meanwhile Venus, who has been mainlining some substance injected by her dealer, Cupid, is also clashing with Jupiter about the safety of her son Aeneas, who is lost at sea after seeking refuge leaving sacked Troy. Jupiter ensures that Aeneas and his followers are safely washed up on the coast of Libya; Venus ensures that they all meet up and will be looked after by the beneficence of the local queen Dido.

DQOC Aeneas and his teamBut Venus has further ambitions for Aeneas, so she engineers it that Cupid will disguise himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanius, prick Dido with his hypodermic, and ensure that Dido falls head over heels in love with Aeneas. It strongly reminded me of Shakespeare’s Hermia and Helena falling for Lysander and Demetrius – and vice versa. There’s a delightfully underplayed scene where Dido and Aeneas nip off to the cave for some Carthaginian Carnals, emerging later like a couple of relieved yet still bashful teenagers. At times it’s almost like a Libyan Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. What would Colonel Gaddafi have said?

DQOC Chipo Chung and Amber JamesBut for every light moment Marlowe provides plenty of shade. There’s a very deeply tragic aspect to this play, from Aeneas’ moving (if long) account of the fall of Troy, to the genuine personal suffering of Iarbas, Dido’s suitor who can’t understand why she’s being so inconstant in her affections, to the imprisonment of the faithful nurse, and to Dido’s death by fiery self-immolation and the subsequent suicides of those around her. (I’m assuming after 425 years that it’s too late for spoilers.) I found it fascinating that, at the moments of high tragedy, when Dido and Aeneas part, and when Dido immolates herself, Marlowe gets the characters to quote directly – in Latin – from Virgil’s Aeneid, which would have acted as source material for the play. It’s like an early example of verbatim theatre.

DQOC Ben Goffe and Ellie BeavenThe fascinating meshing between the gods and mankind not only acts as a framework for the play but is a running thread that weaves the lives of the mortals and the immortals together. There’s a simple truth here – if you’re a god, or you’re supported by a god, you will do well. If a god’s got it in for you, or you get in the way of what a god wants – then perish you shall. With the dramatic sifting of one handful of sand, they can create any kind of havoc they want. With one jab of his needle, Cupid can cripple or liberate your emotions. It just takes one message from Hermes, and Aeneas knows he has to abandon Dido; it takes two, actually; Aeneas proving remarkably stubborn over this.

DQOC Will BlissThere are so many refreshing elements to this production that delight and astonish. The surface of the stage is covered with sand, enabling it to represent a beach, where refugees might land or from where mariners might set sail, or a visual idea of the “sands of time”, or the dust that is everyone’s fate (gods excluded.) I loved the stylistic entrance of the shipwrecked Trojans, performing energetic diving forward rolls through the curtain of (real) torrential rain at the back of the stage. I loved the imaginative use of the torn down sails to create the ring in the sand inside which Dido would end her life. I loved the scene where Dido invited the men to inspect the portraits of her previous suitors on imaginary walls, where they would recognise someone they’d seen before, as though they were checking actors’ biographies in a programme – if only Marlowe had written “oh look, he was in Juliet Bravo”; alas a missed opportunity. I loved the updating of Cupid’s arrow to a drug pusher’s syringe. I loved the fact that Hermes was wearing a shirt made by Hermès (it might have been Versace, but the joke still stands). As you can see, there’s a lot to love.

DQOC Bridgitta RoyNormally, musical accompaniment to a play like this feels artificial and invasive; but Mike Fletcher’s innovative and sympathetic soundtrack was absolutely spot on. From the portentous strings that evoke Venus’ doves to the plaintive clarinet that creates the smell of the souk (there’s even a wow moment of rock guitar in there too) the music really enhances the action and helps convey the emotions on stage. Ciaran Bagnall’s dramatic lighting adds power and exhilaration to the forces of Nature; and the costumes (see P. S. below) precisely reflect the finery of Dido’s court, the shabbiness of the refugees and the innate elegance of the gods – Venus’ and Juno’s dresses are particularly stunning.

DQOC Daniel YorkWhat is a production without its performers? This is crammed full of exquisitely observed, finely delivered performances right across the board. Chipo Chung’s performance as Dido is a thing of beauty. When she presents Aeneas with her late husband’s cloak for him to wear, despite his protestations she’s never going to take no for an answer. When Cupid’s hypodermic is working its magic, she’s a most convincing bedazzled young girl, trying, but failing, to be appropriately coquettish as she reacts to Aeneas’ every syllable. To relieve the sadness of the account of the fall of Troy, she turns into Party Animal, every inch the good-time girl; and when she’s swallowed up in her own tragedy, she cuts an immaculately forlorn figure. At first, I didn’t think her death scene was going to work – there are no flames, for example – but cunning stagecraft and perfect stillness creates a devastating final tableau. We’d seen Ms Chung in Sheffield’s Julius Caesar earlier in the year where she was a fine Portia – but this was on another level.

DQOC Sandy GriersonShe is matched by a strong performance by Sandy Grierson as Aeneas; his Scottish accent somehow underlining the character’s dour and warlike essence – this is an Aeneas that will leave light protestations to his co-refugees. Delivering that long speech about the fall of Troy – it probably accounts for over 10% of the play in itself – is a tough job, but his account never becomes long-winded or tedious as he brings the imagery of what happened fresh to our minds in all its lively atrocity. Although, physically, he’s not the beefiest of chaps, he’s like a coiled spring ready to leap into action without warning.

DQOC Andro Cowperthwaite and Will BlissEllie Beaven’s Venus also lights up the stage as she conveys the simple enjoyment of all her mischievous interventions in the mortal world; she has great presence, and her double act with Ben Goffe as Cupid is both funny and unsettling as we see the effects of drug abuse amongst the celestial beings. Mr Goffe is required to spend much of his time pretending to be Ascanius, physically cosying up to Dido, or the Nurse, or indeed whoever he wants – and the cheeky pleasure he derives from it is very infectious. The gods are all superbly presented; Nicholas Day is a naturally imperious Jupiter – you’re never going to cross him; Bridgitta Roy a splendidly sly Juno, lurking in the background, waiting for her moment to pounce; Andro Cowperthwaite revels in Ganymede’s brief but lascivious interchange with Jupiter; and Will Bliss’ Hermes is an amusingly world-weary postman until Jupiter plucks one of his feathers and then his nose starts twitching, ready to race like a Springer Spaniel on heat.

DQOC Chipo ChungThere are some great supporting performances from Aeneas’ Trojan followers; I particularly liked Tom Lorcan’s effervescently upbeat Iloneus and Tom McCall’s permanently suspicious Achates; and having a female Cloanthus, played by Lucy Phelps, creates an unusual but effective mix amongst the otherwise all-male retinue. Amber James is terrific as Dido’s sister Anna, always holding a helpless candle for her love for Iarbas, who’s superbly brought to life by Daniel York in a performance that combines brilliant throwaway humour and emotional trauma. At the performance I saw, young Ascanius was played by Samuel Littell and he truly held his own amongst all those grown-ups. Good work, young sir.

DQOC Tom McCallAn unexpected treat of a play, that gives life to what otherwise could remain a dusty old tome on the bookshelf. Very enjoyable and highly recommended! Dido runs until 28th October at the Swan Theatre – get booking!

RSC Stitch in TimeP. S. On the subject of costumes, the RSC has launched their Stitch in Time campaign, highlighting the importance, and unsurprisingly the expense, of accurate and evocative costumes in their historical productions. Even if you’re not able to contribute to the campaign, their website offers a fascinating insight into the attention to detail that their expert staff bring to creating Just The Right Outfit. Well worth a little donation, I reckon, if you admire their work.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis