Review: Measure For Measure
Almeida Theatre, London N1
Mesmeric: Anna Maxwell Martin
"Why Measure for Measure?" asked a colleague as we walked into the theatre. It seems I was not the only one wondering why the Almeida, a venue that generally concentrates on mostly modern British and international plays, had turned to Shakespeare.
It is not as if there is a lack of Shakespeare around. But by the time Michael Attenborough's production had reached the interval, no excuse was needed. The reason was obvious. It was clear that Attenborough must have been burning to direct this problem play.
The Duke, Vincentio (Ben Miles), is going on a trip and in his absence has put vice-ridden Venice in the hands of his trusted apparatchik Angelo (Rory Kinnear). Angelo turns out to be a puritan - so pure that he sentences to death young buck Claudio for getting his betrothed pregnant. No, not Angelo's betrothed, Claudio's.
So what is the play's problem? Well firstly, the line between tragedy and comedy is too narrow even to be called a tightrope. And even this dead-pan, modern dress production cannot prevent some unintended chuckles from the audience at the unlikely plot twists.
Lez Brotherston's unflashy but effective design of two revolving walls seamlessly moves the action from the Medici interiors to the bare-brick streets where hookers, hustlers and their pimps ply their trade. If anything, the vice is overplayed. The whole point of Angelo's outrageous edict is that he sees filth where there is only fun.
But Attenborough paces the plot like a thriller. And like all thrillers the plot has a clock on it. Claudio is to be executed unless his virtuous sister Isabella (Anna Maxwell Martin) can persuade Angelo to spare him. And during the negotiation the stage crackles with tension as Angelo makes clear his price - Claudio's life for Isabella's body.
Kinnear's Angelo is as chilling a portrait of faceless brutality as you are likely to find. Too modest for ambition, this is a ruler whose ruthlessness is anchored not in the macho sadism of a great dictator, but an inscrutable civil servant's lack of imagination. Rules are rules. He is the Taliban with a briefcase.
The mesmerising Martin reveals Isabella's persuasive passion and compassion, but also a heart as stony as Angelo's when her brother Claudio begs her to pay the price for his life. Here Emun Elliott's Claudio unforgettably shifts from the suave seducer who got his girl pregnant to a carpet-chewing hysteric at the thought of his coming execution.
Also superbly judged is Miles's elegant Duke, who stalks his city disguised as a monk (prompting some of the titters) all the better to witness Angelo's injustice. But Miles also gives us a pretty good answer as to his mysterious motives. He too fancies Isabella something rotten (what is it about virgin nuns?), a fact that is often only revealed at the end of the play, though here Miles makes sense of the role by transmitting the possibility almost from the beginning.
But the big winner is Attenborough. His productions at the Almeida are always interesting, but compared to the stellar successes and West End transfers of the Donmar only fitfully triumphant.
I do not say that West End transfers are the criteria for success. But when Shakespeare is delivered as it is here, gripping, funny, dark and terrifying, it deserves to be seen by as wide a public as possible. (Tel: 020 7359 4404)