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Measure For Measure - RSC Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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New version of Shakespeare play has 'Me Too' themes
With the impact of the #MeToo movement, it's no wonder that the sexual abuse of power is becoming an ever more present theme in new theatre productions.

While there's been plenty of attention around John Malkovich playing a powerful Hollywood producer accused of sexually assault in David Mamet's new play Bitter Wheat at London's Garrick Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is taking a more subtle, historic route at highlighting this issue.

measure for measure, rsc, gregory doran, lucy phelps
Lucy Phelps as tormented nun Isabella


RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran directs this sensitive, astute new production of Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, which opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and goes on to London's Barbican along with touring regionally.

As the woman at the heart of the story cries out "but who will believe me?", you can't help but have an emotional reaction to this significant statement that gets to the crux of the matter of recent revelations.

With a striking resemblance to complaints aired in the current #MeToo movement, it's horrifyingly depressing to think that Shakespeare was writing about these same issues in 1604 and yet this behaviour has still been allowed to flourish for centuries more.

This new version features Doran's signature notes of dramatic scenery and use of music that make it visually exciting, not just for the theatre audience but when it is screened to cinemas on 31 July.

measure for measure, RSC, Greg doran, me too movement
Measure For Measure translates well into the early 1900s


Cleverly set in the early 1900s in Vienna, it has repressed buttoned up officials waging a moral and legal war against debauchery, sin and prostitution after the Duke leaves town to secretly go undercover as a monk to understand what is really happening in his city.

What emerges is that the highly respected dignitary Angelo, tasked with cleaning up the city and left in charge, proves himself to be more politically and sexually corrupt as those he is punishing.

Angelo's unravelling comes after he harshly sentences young man Claudio to death for getting his fiancée pregnant before they are married as a lesson to other sinners.

But finding himself attracted to Claudio's sister Isabella, a novice nun, who is begging for her brother's life, Angelo's true nature is revealed - offering Isabella the pardon she craves if she sleeps with him.

measure for measure, RSC, theatre review, greg doran, Lucy Phelps
The plot has stark similarities with current times


Playing the tortured soul of nun Isabella is excellent Lucy Phelps, who has also impressed this RSC season as Rosalind in As You Like It. Her anxiety is clear from both her facial and body movements and the scene where Angelo makes his indecent proposal and paws her from behind is excruciatingly uncomfortable - as it should be.

She is a believable victim but there are many detailed character touches that bring this story to life and add an edge of modernity across the board.

Angelo, played menacingly by Sandy Grierson, is depicted as a man so repressed that he wears a cilice spiked chain around his thigh in Opus Dei style. While the brothel madam Mistress Overdone is transgender, in the towering form of Graeme Brookes. Then there is Overdone's pimp (David Ajao), a likeable cheeky fellow with a strong Jamaican accent and councillor Escalus and the prison keeper Provost, both changed into female parts, which work well with the authoritative, reasoned portrayals by Claire Price and Amanda Harris respectively.

Best of all is the comedy figure of Lucio, a ridiculous dandy who unwittingly winds up the Duke at every opportunity. Joseph Arkley seems to relish the role and his passion for playing this 'fantastic' (as Lucio is described in the programme) provides the much-needed light to the darkness of the rest of the plot.

measure for measure, RSC, Antony Byrne, greg doran
Antony Byrne plays the Duke in Measure for Measure


With big image backdrops and grandiose settings of a train station, prison and church, there's a blockbuster feel to the proceedings but always in a darkened atmosphere.

Even the final scene when everything is resolved by master of ceremonies Antony Byrne as the Duke, there is still a claustrophobic air that all is not well.

The closing look from Isabella is a masterstroke piece of direction from Doran that shouts loudly about many women's plight despite no words.

This new Measure For Measure is one of the most exciting and relevant plays the RSC has produced for a while. You won't want to miss it.

RATING:

UK TOUR

ROYAL SHAKESPEARE THEATRE
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
UNTIL 29 AUG 2019

BROADCAST LIVE IN CINEMAS ON 31 JUL 2019

BARBICAN
LONDON
12 NOV 2019 - 16 JAN 2020

REGIONAL TOUR
THE LOWRY
SALFORD
25 SEPTEMBER - 5 OCTOBER 2019

THE MARLOWE
CANTERBURY
29 JANUARY - 8 FEBRUARY 2020

THEATRE ROYAL
PLYMOUTH
12 - 22 FEBRUARY 2020

NOTTINGHAM THEATRE ROYAL
26 FEBRUARY - 7 MARCH 2020

NEWCASTLE THEATRE ROYAL
11 - 21 MARCH 2020

GRAND THEATRE BLACKPOOL
25 MARCH - 4 APRIL 2020

Running time: 2 hrs 17 mins plus a 20 mins interval
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Why? See Fascinating Shakespeare Play With Sexual Harassment Themes
When: Until 4 April 2020 on tour
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From £16
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