Charles Spencer from the Telegraph must really have it in for the RSC this winter season. He condemns their David Edgar play about the King James Bible, Written on the Heart, as “wordy and hard work,” and takes an almost visceral dislike Roxana Silbert’s production of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s problem comedy of sex and the city. So damning was his verdict on the second that I almost turned in my ticket.
I’m glad I didn’t. It’s important that we support a female director, still a rarity in British theatre, and take her view seriously on this most thought-provoking of plays. M4M features one of his most conflicted and fascinating heroines – Isabella, the novice nun, who values her chastity above her brother’s life when she is sexually propositioned by a corrupt governor, Angelo. It’s a decision that would have made a lot more sense to a Jacobean audience than it does to us. Isabella’s reasoning is simple – Claudio would lose his earthly life, but her eternal soul is at stake; no contest. In a society full of fudge and compromise on all sides, she stands out as one of the few clearly principled characters. The problem is that exactly the same could be said of Angelo, whose refusal to temper justice with mercy puts her in this dreadful position in the first place.
In these post-feminist times it’s not unusual to present Angelo as a woman-hating monster, possibly casting a black actress as Isabella to underline the point. Josette Simon ended up being wrestled to the ground in Hyntner’s 1987 production. But Angelo’s nastiness is equalled and perhaps excelled by that of the Duke, who presents a huge directorial problem by leaving his deputy, clearly in over his head, to organise a social clean-up that he lacks the courage to implement himself, preferring to maintain his popularity by staging his disappearance and then showing up as a friar (a type that would have shrieked duplicity and enabling of licentious behaviour to Shakespeare’s original audience) to interfere with the action, submit Isabella to a horribly cruel deception whilst claiming to help her reprieve her brother and then offer her his hand in marriage in the play’s final moments. Isabella’s silence at this point ranks with Katerina’s last speech in The Taming of The Shrew as a nightmare moment for any modern director.
So, what does Silbert do with all this? Well, she decides not to romanticise the sex industry so there are no tarts with hearts of gold. The pimps and whores are nasty, though entertaining. The guys in the prison look like members of a heavy metal band after a long night, and there is quite a bit of bondage gear scattered around, although as this rather more positive review points out, that particular theme isn’t followed through as much as some might have hoped. Angelo, a superb performance from Jamie Ballard, is a character whose actions sprang from stress and a deep-seated inability to recognise and comprehend his own emotions. To me, he seemed to exhibit the symptoms of high-level Asperger’s syndrome, not only in his lack of emotional affect but also in his attempt to control complex situations by breaking them down into their component parts and working through them according to an inflexible protocol. This explains his treatment of Mariana, his rejected fiancee. He deserts her because her father’s misfortune prevents him from claiming the pre-arranged dowry, so by Angelo’s remorseless, well-intentioned logic, she no longer ticks all the boxes that add up to marriage. Angelo is clearly unsettled by physical contact; his leather cummerband is worn not as fetish but as protection, and it is Isabella’s innocent placing of her hand on his chest to appeal to his heart that releases his repressed desire for her.
The Duke is a more difficult problem. He doesn’t behave well, and that’s what makes him entertaining. You can either handwave or embrace this unfortunate fact, and Silbert unashamedly chooses the latter, making him into a showman as he produces hidden coins and plot-advancing letters from his sleeves. Here’s a man who has to be the centre of attention, loved and adored by people, with the rictus smile of Tony Blair or David Cameron and the ruthlessness of Simon Cowell. There’s no heavy-handed attempt to make him into a parable of our times; his actions are allowed to speak for themselves, he’s great fun to watch (and knows it) and it’s likely that his torture of Isabella is a deliberate device to make him look all the more bountiful before the (metaphorical) TV cameras when all is resolved. Nobody understood the ambivalence and power of showmanship better than Shakespeare.
Jodie McNee, handed a wonderful part, largely plays it straight with an open face, a modest, old-fashioned frock rather than a wimple and a refreshingly down-to-earth Lancashire accent. Yes, she’s screwed-up, but so is everybody else on stage, some of them in far more dangerous ways. Having attempted to retain her innocence in a murky world, she’s forced to learn the hard way how to function when circumstances thrust her unwillingly into its vortex – she has more in common with Angelo than she knows or would care to acknowledge. It doesn’t justify their bad decisions, but if ever there was a play about human nature in all its complexity and the grinding together of the tectonic plates of principle and pragmatism in urban society, this is it. Like the grit in an oyster (an appropriate aphrodisiac image in a play saturated with sexual and commercial imagery), it continues to disturb and challenge us. The high proportion of young people in the sell-out audience suggest that this production is hitting the right spot.