It’s not an easy feat to update Shakespeare plays to a modern period, and to do so in a convincing manner is even more hard. The Young Vic attempts to do so in their latest production of Measure for Measure, and while it succeeds in its modern staging and characterisation, it falls short in the execution of some scenes.
Opening on a stage littered with blow up sex dolls, this is the first hint that this is a modern, fresh take on the play. While some may find this staging a tad odd, it works well in establishing the world of Vienna from the start, a city both sexually and morally sick, where ‘corruption boil[s] and bubble[s]/Till it o’er-run[s]’ itself. The blow up dolls do not just serve as a staging device, as the way the characters interact with them reveals a sense of self and sexuality. The Duke is at home with these symbols of sex: they fill his office, serving as a constant reminder of the ‘liberty’ he has afforded the people, and perhaps implying that he too has engaged in such lewd behaviour at one time. Entering the office, Angelo is noticeably uncomfortable in this presence, clinging to his bible and treading awkwardly so as to avoid as little contact as possible, truly a man ‘who never feels/The wanton stings and motions of the sense’.
While Joe Hill-Gibbins’ initial situation and staging of the play works well in some places, the updating feels heavy handed and unnecessary in others. Throughout the prison scenes, the Duke disguised as Friar takes confessions, and records these on a large camera. Projected on to the stage for all to see, they almost play as a public broadcast for the audience and people of Vienna, warning of the dangers of lechery since ‘All sects, all ages smack of this vice’. While this is clever, its use is somewhat inconsistent: as well as being used for Juliet’s confession, sometimes it is used for soliloquies by the Friar, and other times for scenes which are not even filmed by the Friar himself. An interesting concept, just a confused execution.
The other major criticism in terms of updating is the frankly awful introduction of Mariana. As the Friar talks about Mariana, we see her stand up and pace about, dancing to some quiet music playing on her phone which grows in volume. She then proceeds to dance and sing to Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’, in what is the most awkward moment of the play. Why, you and I ask? In the original text, the Duke finds Mariana listening to a boy singing a sad lovers’ song, and she wishes that the Duke ‘had not found [her] here so musical’. For some reason, Hill-Gibbins translated this initial ‘musical’ introduction from a beautiful, sad lament into what resembles a moody, angst emo teenager playing their music too loud on the train following a break up. Yes, it works in theory, but it comes across wrong and had some laughing. It’s possibly the most tenuous link and unnecessary piece of staging I’ve ever seen.
While questionable in its modern staging, the play excels in its new, refreshing takes on some of the characters. In most productions, Angelo is a man who oozes authority whereas Paul Ready’s Angelo is less naturally inclined. In a move which is actually closer to the text, Angelo seems reluctant to accept this role: ‘Let there be some more test made of my metal,/Before so noble and so great a figure/Be stamp’d upon it’. Ready’s physicality hints at his discomfort in this new position, as Angelo retreats into the set itself particularly in the early scenes with Isabel. While he may be ‘Drest in a little brief authority’, both Isabella and the audience see his naked, true self, so emotionally honest and open is Ready’s portrayal. As we see him fingering his bible, his nervousness and innocence is more believable, which makes his sudden change and outburst later all the more shocking. I would recommend seeing this production solely for Ready’s inspired take on the role.
Zubin Varla makes for an interesting exploration of the Duke, placing more emphasis on his faults than other productions have. When he laments, ‘We have strict statutes and most biting laws…Which for this nineteen years we have let slip’, you believe this is confession, placing emphasis on the ‘we’. The last scene is an inspired choice, and Varla commands the stage. Isabella warns Angelo, ‘it is excellent/To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant’, and indeed here we see the Duke act like a giant, literally picking people up and moving them round the stage. The final image we end on is striking, like a forced family photo, and shows just the extent of one man’s ego and its power. Despite Isabella having no lines in these final moments, Romola Garai plays them beautifully, expressing so much while saying nothing. Her Isabella remains true to herself throughout, balancing naivety and yet resolve, even in her reaction to the Duke in the last scene. Her scenes with Ready’s Angelo are a delight to watch, and her conviction in her anger and passion is admirable. The production is rounded off with a good supporting cast, particularly John Mackay’s impish, dark Lucio. The prison subplot and its characters make for less than memorable turns, or if they are memorable, not in a good way.
Verdict: an ambitious, refreshing take on one of Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, but one which proves to be problematic in its execution.
Meausure for Measure is playing at the Young Vic until 14th November 2015. For information and to book tickets, visit the Young Vic’s website.