Beginning with two scantily-clad prostitutes dancing in cubicles to a thumping heartbeat, bathed in red light and set among leering frescoes, Michael Attenborough’s modern dress production of Measure For Measure sets out to capture the debauchery of Shakespeare’s Vienna.
It is a place where pre-marital fornication and prostitution – the “foppery of freedom” as it is so poetically put – have become commonplace, and the ruling Duke Vincentio knows he has to act. Announcing he is going abroad, he leaves the hardline Angelo in charge of the city, only to secretly return disguised as a friar to keep a watchful eye on things.
So Shakespeare provides the backdrop to a plot which explores the nature of morality and the hypocrisy of society. In sentencing young Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancée prior to marriage, Angelo demonstrates his unwavering dedication to the law, only to be undone by an unexpected and all-consuming desire for Claudio’s pious sister, trainee nun Isabella, who comes to plead for his life.
Rory Kinnear and Anna Maxwell Martin, as Angelo and Isabella, adeptly portray the wash of contradictory feelings that each of them feels in the scene where Angelo, succumbing with little resistance to his hypocritical desires, tells Isabella that he will spare her brother if she consents to sleep with him. Milking the comedy out of the scene, Kinnear quakes with such unfulfilled passion that he can barely put in his contact lenses as he vainly prepares to proposition Isabella. In turn, Maxwell Martin shows that Isabella, though sickened by the ruler’s indecent proposal, is not impervious to human nature as she quivers under Angelo’s first touch. But unlike him, she has the strength of character to desist. She is forceful in her protestations, first to Angelo and then to Claudio, who also shows more weakness than his sister.
Indeed Maxwell Martin’s Isabella is the moral core in Attenborough’s production, holding true to her piety right to the ambiguously-written end. In contrast, immorality is brashly flaunted by Lloyd Hutchinson’s cheerily wanton Lucio, the comic foil of the piece and inadvertent counsel to the disguised Duke. Sitting between them on the moral scale is Ben Miles’s Duke himself, who, through a couple of beautifully subtle moments, shows that his plot to save Isabella from Angelo’s clutches is not entirely selfless.
Elsewhere in the cast, strong support comes from Trevor Cooper’s Pompey and Tony Tuner’s Elbow, who provide more opportunities for Shakespeare to examine the grey area between right and wrong, moral and immoral.
In all, Shakespeare balances the see-saw in a very modern manner, condemning the hypocrites and the unsalvageable, sympathising with young love and accepting that humans cannot be perfect.