The Branding of Nadiya Hussain

nadiya

Nadiya Hussain’s first novel has just been published – is there no end to this lady’s talents? She has already proved her worth on the Great British Bake Off, released a lovely kids’ cook book and proved to be a charming and natural TV travel show host. And of course, she is justly valued as an icon of everything that inclusive, multicultural Britain should be.

She’s a delightful person and a worthy Bake Off winner. I wish her all the best; so, I am sure, does Jenny Colgan. But I do share Colgan’s reservations about Nadia’s overexposure. It’s not just Nadiya of course; it’s almost a rite of passage for people who became famous on TV for some completely different reason to produce a work of fiction – at the very least, a children’s picture book. A lot of comedians do it and in the case of the popular David Walliams, to give one example, they turn out to be pretty good. This is hardly surprising since humour is a much-loved attribute of many children’s books.

In fairness to Nadia, she’s probably in the hands of an agent by now and has only limited choice over what opportunities she doesn’t take up. And she acknowledges that she didn’t write her novel on her own. I don’t think Jenny Colgan’s showing any jealousy or sour grapes here. But she’s identifying a somewhat depressing feature of modern cultural life, one that I see daily in my work with children’s books.

Children’s fiction has always featured long, much-loved and formulaic series. But at least Enid Blyton wrote her own books. She wasn’t part of a syndicate dreamed up by marketing moguls, subsumed into a generic Daisy Meadows or Adam Blade. The marketing of Nadiya shows that branding is everything in publishing these days. The best way to get a book published is not necessarily (some would say never) to be a good writer, but to be famous for something else already. What does that actually say to children about how much we value good writing? That it’s something you get to do after you’ve done the important stuff, the stuff like being in the Big Brother house or on The Apprentice? That once you’ve been famous for fifteen minutes you have a right to be heard and to be taken seriously? Where does that leave Jenny Colgan’s child, “in a chilly corner of your library, if you are still lucky enough to have one….by themselves, bespectacled probably; not wearing the trendiest clothes. And they are reading and reading and filling their head with nothing else but books and words and new worlds.”

Of course, publishers would argue that they have to make money and that’s what people want. But people tend to want what they have been told that they want, by multinational corporations with agendas of their own. And any corporation has a tendency to rub the messy edges off those creative people that come into its clutches. I think books have become so brand-saturated because as a society we have stopped valuing the gatekeepers, the teachers and librarians, the arbiters of taste. In a spirit of misplaced anti-elitism we have convinced ourselves that such people have no right to impose their cultural standards on us. Voters have consistently supported governments that have presided over the running down of libraries and the stifling of creativity in schools. The result is that many people are deeply uncomfortable around books, so much so that they need the presence of a comforting character to make the experience palatable to them.

I see this in the school library all the time. At one time I was dismayed by the number of shoddily written, cheap Disney picture books that some children craved. I also confess to a deep aesthetic aversion to Peppa Pig. But my prejudices have mellowed somewhat as I’ve interacted more with children who have not grown up with a lot of books around them. For a small child, a book works best in close proximity to an adult, someone offering them undivided attention and a feeling of security and acceptance. For many children – and not necessarily poor ones – that role is now filled by the iPad or the TV. No wonder that the presence of a Disney character reassures them. And if they are lucky enough to have people in their lives who will build on that by buying them books, those adults are increasingly tempted to play safe by buying the 90th title in an interminably formulaic series that they know the recipient will like.

When I was a regular churchgoer, I became familiar with the pronouncement that God loves us enough to take us as we are, but not to leave us as we are. It does us good to be gently, persistently and lovingly pushed out of our comfort zone. Or would our political masters prefer us to stay there, marooned in our bunkers and transfixed by our screens? The best way to do that is to run down libraries, until you end up with people who won’t contemplate reading anything that doesn’t have a person from the telly on the front of it. So far, it seems to be working.

Nadiya’s lovely and genuinely talented. Perhaps a little brand-stretching is a price worth paying for her value as a positive role model in this increasingly divided society. But to misquote Arthur Miller, I congratulate her with a sense of alarm.

 

All that Glisters Is Not Gold – The Merchant of Venice at the Globe

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock

Back from London, where on Sunday I went straight from an intense political discussion with my son in the BFI canteen to a production of “Merchant of Venice” at the Globe. I have blogged about the Merchant before, after seeing the striking but ideologically muddled RSC production of 2011. And indeed, one problem with directing Merchant is that it’s more than simply a Jewish play. There are so many facets to the dysfunctional Venice Shakespeare depicts that it’s a challenging decision for any director to decide which ones to go with. The RSC production ended up highlighting the sexism, its Portia a dumbed-down Barbie doll, and the veniality, transforming Venice into Vegas with an Elvis soundtrack and slot machines.

The Globe has taken a different tack, very much foregrounding the anti-Semitism. Shylock is given dignity by a deeper portrayal of his culture than is generally afforded. Played by the real-life father and daughter team of Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce, this Shylock and Jessica communicate in Hebrew and we see Jessica’s initially modest dress evolve as she slots uneasily into louche Venetian society. In the scene where Antonio sets up the fateful bond, he snatches Shylock’s prayer book from him and throws it to the ground, a gesture rendered even more powerful when Shylock kisses the scriptures upon retrieving them. This is not a Shylock who blends in, and his apparently unreasonable demand for justice becomes a cry for the recognition and validation of his identity.

There are a number of such brutal incidents in this production. When Jessica is transported to Belmont, Portia’s body language and casual flirtation with Lorenzo makes it clear that she will never be fully accepted. We see instances of casual and vicious anti-Semitism, and they are all the more effective for being downplayed, showing a prejudice so integrated into Venetian culture that it deemed entirely unremarkable. Portia herself is marginalised and denied agency, and barely recognises the myriad subtle ways that she inflicts the pain this causes her on more vulnerable outsiders; even the casket scene with the Prince of Morocco, generally played entirely for laughs, acquires an edge here when we contrast her eye-rolling contempt for this Muslim wannabe with her barely-veiled hints to the more favoured Bassanio.

But these undercurrants are, rightly I feel, kept bubbling under the surface. The final scene, described by Shakespeare but realised here, is the forced conversion and baptism of Shylock. It’s almost unbearable to witness. While Jessica keens in the background, knowing that she has sold herself to a world that will never completely accept her, we see a proud and dignified man completely broken by a corrupt society that willingly exploits him even as it despises and condemns his faith.

What I took away from this intelligent rendering of a painful play was that prejudice of any kind corrupts and distorts an entire society, cheapening the relations between men and women, servants and masters, rich and poor alike. Here was a corruption barely noticed, so pervasively toxic it had become. Both Shakespeare’s Venetian plays (the other one being, of course, Othello) focus on outsiders whose qualities are exploited by a social order that despises and abuses them, and it shows that living with such prejudice coarsens the victims as they unconsciously transfer the insults they themselves suffer onto their domestic and social victims.

The best programme notes add subtlety and contemporary resonance to our reading of the play. The Globe programme points out that Venice in the early modern period was already a society in deep decline, defeated by the Ottoman empire, scarred by plague and all but finished as a significant trading power. Yet the Council of Ten continued to strut and swagger, to defy Papal edict, persecute their minorities and reserve a particularly sharp disdain for those outsiders whose talents helped them to negotiate the new world order.

The parallels with contemporary England have real resonance at this point in our national history. One wonders how many of the tourists thronging outside the Globe, drawn to London by our long-standing reputation for decency and democracy, will eventually discover the emptiness of that particular casket as we seek to jettison our commitment to the Declaration of Human Rights and cling to an outdated concept of past glories.

Tennant as Richard II – what did I think?

DT RichardRichard II.

Richard II is not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s long, it’s entirely in verse (much of it rhyming couplets, making it difficult to conduct a realistic conversation), the historical background is alien to us and we are plunged right into a dispute that can seem pretty baffling to the uninitiated. Additionally, the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. There is also an almost complete lack of light relief. For these reasons, and no doubt many more, it is rarely performed.

But if you’re going to understand the Histories, it’s essential, because the whole cycle turns on the issue of whether the sacreligious act of deposing an anointed ruler can ever be justified – a question of vital importance to Shakespeare’s audience as the ageing Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid. She was under no illusions. “Know ye not I am Richard II?” she quipped darkly, threatened by the rebellion of Essex and other restless favourites.

So Richard is a very public and political story, and last year’s BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the title role put that across poetically and winningly. His Richard was almost too beautiful to live – a foolish boy-king in his golden pavilion toying with his pet monkey and fondling his flatterers. And when I heard that Tennant was going to take on the role, I wondered if he was already a bit too old. His face seems to have lost some of its youthful smoothness over the last few years, become pinched and a bit gaunt in certain, unflattering lights, though he can still scrub up well when he wants to. But wasn’t he a bit mature for the bratty Richard, I wondered?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Being Tennant, directed by Doran who understands him and knows him inside out, he turned that to his advantage. Clad head to toe in shimmering raiment, nails laquered to match, sporting hair extensions almost to his waist, he gives off the aura of an ageing, slightly dissolute rock star with his best hits behind him. He plays a monarch utterly trapped in his divinely appointed role, who has known nothing else since childhood (the real Richard II was crowned at the age of 10), deeply and desperately unfulfilled, capricious and gripped by the ennui that comes from having everything, yet nothing. Even more remarkably, he conveys a sense that his downfall, though merited politically since he behaves atrociously, exchanges an age of refinement and culture for something less imaginative, more pragmatic and brutal. This production harbours no illusions about medieval chivalry. It is a form of words that plasters crude bullying and jockying for position with a veneer of refinement, and results in as much grief and slaughter as any capricious royal commands. Tennant’s Richard calls off Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s dual at the eleventh hour because, above all, he finds it boring and distasteful.

It had not occurred to me until I saw this production that Richard II is a personal tragedy as well as a public one. It’s personal because Richard doesn’t know who he is. Or rather, he always assumed that “the King” was the only conceivable answer. When that goes, there’s nothing left, and it takes an actor of Tennant’s sensitivity and chilling calibre to let the ghastly fear show in his eyes as, one by one, his certainties are stripped away. He’s never been regarded as a human being, so he’s never learned how to be one (there are obvious parallels with the Doctor here, though his performance never goes near them in any overt way). A particularly touching scene is when the young Aumerle, who is obviously in love with Richard, breaks down in his presence and the ex-King awkwardly takes him in his arms, struggling to locate something close to a genuine emotional response.

In its later stages, Richard’s journey becomes a philosophical quest. Rotting in prison, his layers of royal costume literally stripped from him, chained in a filthy shift, he ponders is fate, trying and failing to make sense of it all:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

Richard’s first steps to self-awareness are snuffed out by his murderers, but in his lines we hear something like an early draft of Hamlet’s interiority.

It would be quite wrong to give all the credit to Tennant for this production, as he would be the first to admit. Another of its unexpected strengths is that the older nobles on the sidelines of the action are fleshed out and made fully human. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt takes the famous “England” speech and restores its anguish; it is not triumphalism but a lament for a loved native land despoiled by foolish misgovernment. And those who saw Doran’s 2008 Hamlet will recall how ably Tennant was supported by the superb Oliver Ford Davies as Polonious. Here he returns as the King’s ageing uncle York and shows us an old man worn out by the loss of his brothers to internicine fighting, unable to bear the load the inadequate King Richard puts on his shoulders as regent at a time of political turbulence, yet torn apart by inner conflict as he comes to realise that the unthinkable must be done to preserve any semblance of order. In York we have an eloquent defence of the sanctity of kingship, and the lacerating pain of seeing it fail. It’s a stupendous achievement, and a great pleasure to see the dynamic between Davies and Tennant again.

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II
Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

In short, this production more than delivers. If you are a Tennant fan, you’ll find plenty to absorb you here, but hopefully you will see beyond the charisma to a difficult play done well. You’ll be lucky to get a ticket but do catch the movie showing if you possibly can.

 

Tennant returns to Stratford – and more good news

tennantR2I’m obviously backsliding as a Tennant fan, because the much-rumoured news that he was to play Richard II for the RSC came as a complete surprise to me. After some frankly forgettable movies, it’s the right part for the right man at the right time. If he left it much longer I think he’d find it harder to convey Richard’s physical and mental fragility, although anyone who remembers the Tenth Doctor’s meltdown in The Waters of Mars won’t have many concerns on the latter.
In fact, this announcement is the jewel in the very enticing crown of Doran’s overall vision for the RSC. There’s a real feel of going back to basics, with his commitment to stage the entire canon without repetition over the next five years. I’m pleased that he’s resisting the pull of the GCSE and A-Level set books and backpeddling the ensemble strategy a bit. Celebrity casting has its pitfalls but great actors are great for a reason – they are supremely good at their job. And great actors and celebrities aren’t necessarily synonymous, though in the case of Tennant’s Hamlet the two did coincide. Hopefully the hysteria will be more muted now he’s no longer whizzing about in the TARDIS, which will make the daunting prospect of booking and security management a little easier for the RSC and, presumably, the whole experience less stressful for him.

Also welcome is that Doran has a clear plan for the beautiful Swan theatre. Written on the Heart, a couple of years ago, did show its potential as a more intimate space to reflect on the complexities of the early modern era and its dramatic output. The Hilary Mantel adaptation is a terrific coup and might even generate more buzz than the comparatively little-known and demanding Richard II.

The revival of TOP is further good news for the Stratford economy. Local businesses have had a tough time in recent years, with the main house dark for so long and the future of The Courtyard unresolved. Keeping shops and guest houses open may not be at the top of Doran’s agenda, but the RSC is a big enough local employer to take some responsibility for the community, so this is good news on both aesthetic and economic grounds.

I’m looking forward to many more wonderful theatrical experiences in Stratford over the years to come. For this relief, much thanks, Mr D!

Can a war movie be too beautiful? Thoughts on “Birdsong” and “Coriolanus”

Coriolanus, the Movie

My weekend (artistically at least) was dominated by stories of war. It began with the new Coriolanus movie on Friday, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Coriolanus is one of the great, sprawling tragedies of Shakespeare’s later career. One could almost call it cinematic. There are a lot of short, punchy scenes that flow into each other, conveying information and moving along a complicated plot. In that respect it resembles Anthony and Cleopatra, but is far less romantic. It is, at heart, the story of a man who becomes a war hero in a society where, it is generally assumed, that fits him for high political office. But to succeed as a consul he needs to court the favour of the people, something that due to his proud and austere temperament he is quite unable to do. The play can be opened out further in many different ways, and among these it is an examination of how difficult it is for a society based on warfare and the breeding of warriors to be anything other than dysfunctional. The personal tragedy of Coriolanus himself, a man who only really feels completely alive when he is locked in combat, mirrors this.

Coriolanus also contains one of Shakespeare’s greatest portraits of a mature woman, in the person of the hero’s formidable mother, Volumnia. Volumnia lives vicariously through her only child, all her energy channelled into pride in his military achievements. Her story is a fascinating deconstruction of the accepted ideal of the powerful Roman matron. I wonder, sometimes, if this was a story that had been in Shakespeare’s mind long before he actually wrote it, and if one of the reasons for that was that his portrait of a strong woman whose temperament had been warped by the need to succeed in a world dominated by ultra-masculine values was simply too provocative to put on stage until after Elizabeth’s reign had ended.

The intricate political plot is mirrored and contrasted with Coriolanus’s emotional journey. Locked in a dysfunctional relationship with both his mother and his homeland, he eventually finds intimacy and release in the arms (literally) of his sworn enemy, Aufidius. He defects to the other side after being banished from Rome, a situation brought on by his political ineptitude and inability to conceal his contempt for common humanity. The scene where he offers Aufidius his service, and by implication his love, is one of the most homoerotically charged that Shakespeare ever wrote.

When Coriolanus leads an assault on Rome his desire for revenge is sated but he finds himself caught in an impossible conflict of loyalties when his mother, wife and son come and plead with him to spare his native state. Eventually he capitulates, an act which destroys him and offers Volumnia an empty victory.

It is a story that can be updated easily; the main dilemma faced by a modern film-maker is how to make the hero’s political rise and fall credible without getting bogged down in the lengthy political scenes. Fiennes locates the action in a state called Rome, but actually resembling a Balkan battlefield of civil war. News bulletins and horse-trading in smoke-filled rooms move along the political plot and battle scenes are shot on grainy film with hand-held cameras. The result is a powerful portrait of the violence, mess and sheer destruction war inflicts on communities. I’ve seen bloodier war scenes in movies, but none bleaker. There are some astounding performances, particularly from Fiennes himself and from Vanessa Redgrave as a Volumnia cauterised of any emotion, measuring her love for her son by her pride in the number of scars he bears on his body.

Eddie Redmayne in Birdsong - can a World War One movie be too beautiful?

Watching Birdsong on Sunday was a great contrast, though its subject matter was also the way that warfare destroys the human spirit. I haven’t read Sebastian Faulks’ novel, which is very highly thought of, and perhaps because of this I found the characters somewhat flat and opaque. I wonder if it is possible for an adaptation to be too reverent? Birdsong proceeds at a glacial pace, all big close ups and emotional beats stretched out to breaking point. The odd thing was how little any of it engaged me emotionally, even when a bloke’s stomach was ripped open by a shell and he died in agony. I found Stephen impossible to like, or even to relate to, not only in the war scenes but in the earlier ones depicting the passionate affair that haunts him for the rest of his life (though the sex was undoubtedly hot and beautifully photographed).

There is definitely a set of aesthetic values associated with British period drama and I know Birdsong has already been highly praised. I found it tedious and felt a little guilty about my reaction. It is possible even for meticulously recreated shots of the Western Front to look too perfect, and too mired in cinematic cliche, and this effect is magnified when the characters don’t engage us. Ironic, since Birdsong is credited by many as having pioneered a new, realistic depiction of the First World War in fiction. It may be one of those dramas you can’t really appreciate without some knowledge of the original.

It’s not that the First World War in fiction fails to move me. Far from it. I’ve been powerfully affected by Owen and Sassoon’s poetry, and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, in the latter case so much that I doubt if I could bear to watch the TV adaptation again. But that is because I was inside Vera’s head and heart – I know what she had lost, I understood her howl of despair and frustration when her selfish parents kept pestering her to come back from her work as a war nurse and keep house for them. I was so angry on her behalf, I could hardly bear it. And the punch-in-the-gut realisation, in the last scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, that all these rather daft and very real men were going over the top to their deaths has also remained with me:

It is also possible to convey both the pity and the horror in the simplest of language, accessible even to children, and this short, simple passage from War Horse says more, to me, than hours of the Flanders-porn of Birdsong:

Someone remembered it was Christmas morning, and they sang slow, tuneful carols all the way back. For the most part they were casualties blinded by gas and in their pain some of them cried, as they sang, for their lost sight. We made so many journeys that day and stopped only when the hospital could take no more.

It was already a starry night by the time we reached the farm. The shelling had stopped. There were no flares to light up the sky and blot out the stars. All the way along the lane not a gun fired. Peace had come for one night, one at least. The snow in the yard was crisped by the frost.

MICHAEL MORPURGO War Horse, p 86.

So simple. So incredibly moving. I’ve yet to see what Spielberg does with it, but that’s a tough act to follow.

If you can’t say something nice…

One of my earliest movie memories is of Thumper the rabbit in Disney’s Bambi tapping his foot laconically and saying, “If you can’t say sumfin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

I read a lot of criticism and meta-textual analysis. I have two English degrees, one pre- and one post-theory, and occasionally feel I’ve seen it all. Before I give anyone the impression that I am some sort of cultural titan, most of my critical activity has been focussed on two areas – Shakespeare (the subject of my recent MA) and Doctor Who. I was a late arrival in that odd Internet-driven constituency known as “fandom”, drawn there by the emotional power of David Tennant’s performance as the heartbroken Tenth Doctor in the 2006 episode, Doomsday.

Up to that point, I’d always thought of people who wrote fanfiction as rather odd and a bit sad, definitely in need of Getting a Life. What surprised me was what an intelligent, informed and academic community at least one subsection of Doctor Who fandom turned out to be. Many fan-fiction stories are in fact meta-textual analyses in disguise; they posit alternative plotlines, speculate on what might have happened in between episodes or seek to make the subtextual overt; this leads naturally to discussions of the subtext itself and a variety of possible interpretations. It was in fandom that I gained the confidence to tackle postgraduate study, something I’d been vaguely planning to do for decades.

This essay is not, as it happens, a defence of fandom itself. If anything, it’s a defence of the right of creative people to express themselves, regardless of their limitations. Because we all have them. Dickens, as Stanley Wells, the Shakespeare scholar, notes in his piece for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, “…can be sentimental, diffuse, sententious, preachy, muddly in his plotting, overlong. But I value him for the abundance of his imagination, the variety and warmth of his characterization, his inconsequentialities, digressions and irrelevances, the resonance of his prose, the vitality of his dialogue, the piquancy of his observation, his depth of human feeling.”

The writers of the past often express, overtly or indirectly, political and social views that are now unacceptable to us. For example, the argument that The Merchant of Venice, though possibly liberal for its time, is now unacceptably anti-Semitic, is well documented. If I were a Holocaust survivor, I might well feel that this limitation was too serious a matter for me to appreciate the serious messages Shakespeare’s vision carries about love, loyalty and money, themes that still resonate today. There are critics who feel that The Taming of the Shrew is simply too offensive to be staged, since it presents a reductive view of gender politics that no production, no matter how imaginative, can make acceptable.

All writers have their limitations. These may be cultural, or there may just be things that they don’t do very well. This may not necessarily preclude them being very successful. At the moment the TV series Sherlock has propelled Stephen Moffatt, the current show-runner of Doctor Who, into the stratosphere of popularity. In the blogosphere and indeed in the general press, people have pointed out that his view of women is decidedly lacking in subtlety, and this affects his ability to write convincing characters, particularly female ones. (I won’t go into details here, being reluctant to commit the unforgivable sin of spoiling people who have yet to view the latest episodes). But here’s a link to a piece in the Guardian, written before the Sherlock finale aired, for those who would like to probe into this further.

I happen to agree with these charges and I’ve contributed to more debates than I can remember on whether the last showrunner of Doctor Who did a better job than Moffatt. Both writers had their blind spots and hypothetically there is a perfect text somewhere that lacks them all. However, we live in the real world. I’ve got my views, like everyone, but one thing I would always defend is the right of writers to have a go at something difficult, preferably in public. That doesn’t given them the right to be offensive without being called to account, and close reading of the subtext of any cultural artefact, coupled with the right to discuss it publicly and freely, is essential to a civilized society. For that reason alone, I find it unutterably depressing when armchair (or should that be keyboard?) critics use the Internet as a platform for their own particular versions of “Thou shalt not suffer a witch [insert sexist/racist/insult of choice] to live.” By all means talk about it. Hopefully, the writer under discussion, if s(he) is still alive, will take genuine criticism on board and either up their game or, where possible, call in help. There is evidence that Moffatt does that. On both his high-profile TV series, he tends to delegate the emotional heavy lifting to other writers.

By all means point out a writer’s limitations. It’s fun, if you enjoy the activity as much as I do, and it’s important to do so. Let’s try to avoid the blacklist, however, the fannish flounce that declares, “I’ll never watch this show again!” To return to the example I know best, Moffatt has a vision for Doctor Who that is stronger on myth, symbolism and intricate plotting than it is on the convincing depiction of personal relationships. He doesn’t write very well about how it feels to have your baby abducted, for example. He probably knows that, but it was a story he wanted to tell and he had a go. I admire him for that, even while his portrait of Amy Pond makes me roll my eyes in despair. We make allowances for writers who were professionally active years ago, without suspending our critical faculties. Contemporary writers deserve the same civility. Let us endeavour to celebrate what they manage to do well, whether it’s Our Mutual Friend or Sherlock, and be grateful that they stick their neck out and enrich us all. In their position, our own prejudices would be equally noticeable to others, and probably invisible to ourselves.

Measure For Measure, RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford

Jamie Ballard as Angelo in Measure For Measure) (picture from thegoodreview.co.uk)

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.

Innocence under threat: Jodie McNee as Isabella and Ian Midlane as Elbow in the RSC's Meaure for Measure

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.