Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins
Dramaturg Zoe Svendson
Design by Miriam Buether
The Young Vic, London
Tuesday 27th October 2015 7.30
Hammed Animashaun as The provost
Tom Edden as Pompey, a pimp
Romola Garai as Isabella, a novice
Ivanno Jeremiah as Claudio, Isabella’s brother
John Mackay as Lucio, a gentleman
Sarah Malin as Escalus, admin assistant to the duke
Paul Ready as Angelo, deputy to the duke
Natalie Simpson as Julietta, Claudio’s girlfriend
Raphael Sowole as Master Froth
Zubin Varla as Duke Vincentio
Cath Whitefield as Mariana, abandoned fiancee of Angelo
Matthew Wynn as Barnadine, a prisoner
The production runs fashionably without an interval for 1 hour 55 minutes. I believe dramaturg is a fancy half-crown word for script editor. Years of teacher-training established a consensus that 100 minutes was optimum maximum time for the human bottom on a seat for a lecture or a play. Of course films are often an hour longer, but there is no fear of disturbing the performers if one has to leave.
I saw this summer’s magnificent Globe production of Measure for Measure directed by Domenic Dromgoole twice, once early and once late in the run, and on the tragedy – comedy spectrum possible for this play, that was right at the “comedy” end. It’s the best version I have ever seen. I saw Peter Hall’s 2006 production in Bath, and David Troughton in the NT production in 2004, as well as the RSC in 2012, but Dromgoole trumped the lot. As happens in London with plays, this production at the Young Vic opened just as the Globe, a short walk away, was ending its production for the season. In casting Romola Garai as Isabella, they have added another star of film and TV (The Suffragette is currently in cinemas as it runs) to the august bunch (Kidman, Branagh, Rylance and Dench) across the river in the West End. It’s a fascinating choice, as Isabella was portrayed as almost aggressively plain at the RSC and the Globe. It’s hard for Romola Garai to do plain.
stage with ‘hangar doors’ open. Scene being filmed inside is projected not side panels
The Young Vic seems to have a different configuration every time we go there. This time it was a conventional seating arrangement facing the stage. A boxed platform fore stage, with a thin curtain round it, was in front of the base stage which was partitioned off by sliding doors. This back partition wall had an ordinary door inset, or could be used with full height aircraft hanger doors. It was constructed of what looked like light wood effect melamine, which was an odd effect for us, as the language school we worked at for years clad all the walls in the same stuff … and decades later it looks exactly the same, so it was a good move.
Both areas were used, with the inner stage being used frequently behind closed doors, but projected onto the partition from live video cameras. For some scenes the cast had to operate the video cameras, including video selfies. The boxed fore stage with thin upright bars looked very much like the box stage from A View From The Bridge turned around the other way. Because they had to work behind the partition with video a great deal, several of the cast had visible mics around their ears … something I really don’t like to see in a small theatre, but amplification wasn’t apparent at all … though it was certainly used from the inner stage.
At the start, you could see writhing bodies before the semi-transparent curtains opened (by the way, it’s a rare London play that starts nearly ten minutes late as this did). These bodies were male and female sex dolls, huge quantities of them, with the cast rolling around in among them until Vincentio took centre stage. Angelo and Escalus (casting a female Escalus worked very well) had to pick their way gingerly through the sex dolls, noses wrinkled with disgust, to join the scene. For the first few scenes everyone was wading among the dolls … Pompey’s first scene was blowing his doll up, as befits a pimp, I guess. In fact the start was very funny … then it switched mood dramatically.
The great thing about Shakespeare is that you can create such a totally different view of the same text.This was right at the serious / tragic end of the spectrum, with a reduced cast of just twelve, no doubling up either, and edited down to under two hours. There was music, modern dress and a great deal of projection, which made it exciting to watch. It also cast different light on the characters … the imprisoned fornicator Claudio was seen on projected video, listening intently when people were talking about him, making his part larger than normal.
Duke Vincentio with Claudio projected live behind him
Duke Vincentio (Zubin Varla) was quite different. Intense. Almost manic. Nothing of the trickster or joker at all. He put his all into it, and this was a Vincentio intent on rooting out corruption. The trickster / manipulator lines went. His black friar’s garb was disquieting, with the bare calves and shoes and socks showing. I guess the theatre is only 200 yards from Blackfriars Road! There was a lot of projected religious imagery, much of it looked from the Inquisition era (when the play was written in fact).
Angelo (Paul Ready) as the duke’s deputy and enforcer was creepily pious enough, but you could see him twisting and turning, trying to conceal his guilt wonderfully in the final scenes … in a much less humorous production than normal, he was funnier than normal. But he does have a great mobile expressive face. Last time we saw him was in The Black Comedy at Chichester.
Claudio (Ivvanoh Jeremiah) and Isabella (Romola Garai)
The balances shift. The Provost was a security guard in green coveralls. Master Froth (the customer for Pompey’s whores) had most of his lines cut here, but formed a delightfully funny double act with the Provost, reacting on live camera feed from the inner stage. Pompey (Tom Edden) was an American trickster in a baseball cap, and he had a pile of dollars in one video close up. The double act became a trio later with all three caught on camera, reacting in terror.
Being filmed on inner stage: Pompey in hat, Master Froth behind, Provost, Escalus behind camera operator
Lucio (John MacKay), with a mild Scottish burr, was less devious. At one point I was sure he was making it clear that he knew that the friar was the duke in disguise, but then that went altogether. I found that odd. He got the laughs from the lines, which are intrinsically funny, but after two very “BIG” wildly comic Lucios, he was far more restrained.
Isabella (Romola Garai) and Angelo (Paul Ready)
Angelo’s slighted fiancée, Marianna’s first appearance … well, like most of the cast she had to hang around at the side lying on the stage long before she spoke, was dancing frantically to loud music ostensibly from her smart phone. Isabella (Romola Garai) was stronger and angrier too, great at physical pushing and protesting. She was less the beaten down, somewhat out of it, novice, more the enraged sister. The scene where Angelo actually leaps on her was face down, and very physical.
Angelo (Paul Ready) and Vincentio (Zubin Varla)
Most Shakespeare versions have a best moment ever for the play … here it was the last few minutes, where the manic Vincentio lined them all up, and paired everybody off against their will. Isabella was horror struck, Angelo was grasped in Marianna’s arms looking aghast. The funniest was when even the uptight businesslike female Escalus in her blue skirt suit found herself paired off with the enormous tattooed thuggish Barnadine (with his shirt with an upturned cross). And Vincentio was SO pleased with himself, completely oblivious to anyone’s horrified reactions. Zubin Varla displayed great energy all evening, but spectacularly so at the end.
Overall, I’ll go with the three star reviews. The Globe was such a clear five star (both times I saw it) which makes it harder for this production to make its mark. Lively, interesting stagecraft, full of ideas, superb use of live video and projection, excellent cast. But it didn’t bring new life to Measure for Measure as a play for me and I wasn’t sure of where the interpretation was going. It felt severely edited too, meaning that too much hinged on the text alone in some sections to link the story together.
It’s still definitely one to see, and would have had an extra star perhaps, if more distanced in time from the Globe’s “best ever” version. I have to say that this cost just over ONE THIRD the price of Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale a week earlier, or half of Grandage’s Photograph 51, and in an equally good seating position. It’s unquestionably “in the same league” (Premier League) as both of them. A cheaper set and costumes seems the main divide.
Lots of legroom, higher seats (if hard). Two hours here felt considerably shorter from a physical point of view than an hour at the Noel Coward Theatre last week. I have to say the “no interval” treatment worked.
Really friendly and helpful front of house staff too.
Poor. A page of well known disjointed sentences about the play. No essays on history, whys or wherefores.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE ON THIS BLOG
LINKS TO CAST MEMBERS ON THIS BLOG
Paul Ready as Brinsley in The Black Comedy, Chichester Minerva Theatre
Telegraph (Domenic Cavendish) – 3 STARS
Express (Neil Norman) – 3 STARS
Observer (Susannah Clapp_ – 4 STARS
Independent (Holly Williams, no rating, but most interesting review)
Evening Standard (Henry Hitchings) – 3 STAR
Time Out (Andrzej Lukowski) -4 STARS