Confronting the ‘problem play’ head on

NICOLA WATKINSON reviews ‘Measure for Measure’ at The Young Vic.

The Young Vic’s new modern dress production of William Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’its third major London staging this year after productions by The Barbican and Shakespeare’s Globe—flagrantly emphasises the problematic nature of categorising this play. While the First Folio lists it as a comedy, Shakespeare’s play about desire and deceit is notoriously difficult to label as either a comedy or a tragedy, posing a tantalising challenge for directors each time it is staged.

In this production, director Joe Hill-Gibbins takes a firm stance, making it clear that though the ending is ‘happy’, it is only as far as Duke Vincentio is concerned. This depth of analysis is an impressive and refreshing change from the Globe’s carefree production earlier this summer, in which the more challenging elements of the play were somewhat glossed over.

Photo credit: Keith Pattison
Photo credit: Keith Pattison

As is noted in the programme, by being the only title that Shakespeare takes from the Bible, there is also the question of whether or not ‘Measure for Measure’ is intended as a morality play. The opening scene draws on this with bodies scattered around the stage under a gruesome red light, reminiscent of tortured souls in Hell; however, when the lights go up, the horrific power of this scene is immediately broken to great comedic effect. Although Renaissance paintings depicting a similarly gruesome, yet moralising, religious message are occasionally projected onto the screen at the back of the stage, this aspect is sadly not explored any further.

Despite its lack of slapstick and physical comedy, which were integral to the Globe’s version of the play, this production is still highly entertaining. The modern and medieval worlds are juxtaposed – sometimes successfully, sometimes less so – to humorous effect, as well as highlighting the similarities between our time and that of Shakespeare’s , Elizabethan England.

The cast is excellent all round: Romola Garai is an outstanding Isabella, and Paul Ready comes into his own as Angelo becomes more and more consumed by his lust. Zubin Varla portrays the Duke with a twitchy intensity, which can be read either as neurosis or the effect of his own debauchery.

As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death approaches, this production raises questions about how and why we still perform his work. Even if Hill-Gibbins’ production doesn’t quite do enough to answer those questions, it cannot be faulted for its brave attempt.

The Young Vic’s production of ‘Measure for Measure’ ends on 14th November. ‘Macbeth’ is also showing from 26th November to 23rd January. For more information visit http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on.