You can say Shakespeare had his pen on the pulse of human behaviour in many ways. What makes his plays relevant for today is that there is some fundamental human truth hidden behind every verse line, some contemporary echo behind every thought. However, sometimes when you approach one of the classics it’s hard to find the contemporary angle. Where to set it and why? Without having a rock solid justification for the latter, contemporary performances have the danger of going into the zone of being original just for the sake of it.
Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production of Measure for Measure at the Young Vic concerns itself more with the why than the where, which is why this production works so brilliantly in its simplicity. Instead of being limited by its contemporary setting, it focuses on the life blood of the play – the themes that run through and make it so relevant to our world of opposing forces today.
Feeding on the idea of hypocrisy, temptation and the consequences of censorshipm, we are thrown gut first into a modern Vienna where fornication is at its height and indulgence in pleasure is ignored by the state. The Duke has lost control over a city of vices and decides to go into exile, leaving the virtuous Angelo in charge. Angelo is determined to clear the city of its filth and sentences the young Claudio to death for getting his girlfriend Julietta pregnant. Claudio’s sister, the novice Isabella, is encouraged to leave the nunnery to try to persuade Angelo to spare her brother’s life. But desire outweighs his virtue and he proposes a deal – either Isabella gives him her body or Claudio dies.
The production tackles Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ play with an infectious shot of humour, boldness and flavour. Designer Miriam Buether smacks desire bluntly in our face with an enormous pile of inflatable sex dolls on stage, framed by a scaffolding of white pillars of virtue, lit by red light of desire. It’s like a window into our dark desires and with Chris Kondek’s live video we follow the characters backstage with a camera, getting an insight into the backside of the coin – what censorship prevents us from seeing – and the hypocrisy of favouring one extreme over the other.
These bold aesthetic choices are lifted by a company of exceptional actors, all refreshingly playful and on the pulse of this very youthful, brassy and provocative production. All actors inhabit the play with incredible detail, with Zubin Varla’s passionate and spellbinding Duke Vincentio leading the spectacle like a master puppeteer moving his toys around in a doll’s house. Romola Garai’s Isabella is a remarkable combination of innocence and a fireball of strength, and Paul Ready plays Angelo with such passionate confliction that the hypocrisy of the character becomes inevitable human. There are great moments of side-splitting comedy from Tom Edden’s Pompey, and the myriad of sex dolls reappearing throughout is a reminder that we don’t always have to take theatre so seriously.
The depth of the work in this production is excellent but most of all it’s just a lot of fun. The awkwardness of the final scene, which has failed in so many other productions, works so brilliantly with Duke Vincento trying to play God and manipulate his human figures, much to their surprise and horror. It is a clever note on the irony and hypocrisy of the play, something very satisfactory in its discord. Hill-Gibbins has managed to kick some serious thrill into Measure for Measure, making it both relevant and hugely entertaining. If you find Shakespeare a little dusty, this is a performance that will shoot some excitement back into you.
Measure for Measure is playing at the Young Vic until 14 November. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website. Photo: Keith Pattison.