Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, performed
by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Summer 2003.
Sheffield Hallam University
Wood, Richard. "Review of Measure for Measure." Early Modern
Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 15. 1-5 <URL:
Directed by Sean Holmes. With Paul Higgins (Duke Vincentio), Emma Fielding
(Isabella), Daniel Evans (Angelo), Lisa Stevenson (Mariana), Fergus O'Donnell
(Claudio), John Lloyd Fillingham (Lucio), Simon Trinder (Pompey), Ishia
Bennison (Mistress Overdone), Bill Nash (Barnardine).
- This Royal Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure,
directed by Sean Holmes, is set in the 1940s Vienna familiar from the film
The Third Man. From the outset the stage is variously peopled with
prostitutes, pimps and black-marketeers, and the same uncompromising brick
wall dominates all the sets. Initially this atmosphere of moral cynicism seems
to promise a resolution to the time-honoured difficulties associated with
producing Shakespeare's problem play. However, as the action proceeds more
questions are raised than are answered. After the Duke, apparently departing
the city by train, hands over the reigns of power to Angelo, the latter's
strict enforcement of the law against sex before marriage appears very much
at odds with the Vienna of Harry Lime. Indeed, despite several excellent performances,
not least Daniel Evans' portrayal of Angelo as a minor bureaucrat promoted
beyond his ability, the production as a whole fails to carry the weight of
- Nevertheless, the quality of the acting does enliven and positively illuminate
particular scenes. The most effective performance in this regard is Emma Fielding's
Isabella. Seemingly borrowing a motif used by Steven Spielberg in Schindler's
List, Isabella appears on the gloomily lit stage among the otherwise drably
dressed cast in a striking red coat. Fielding stands out in other ways. She
speaks her lines with a rhythm and conviction that mark her out as the last
repository of moral certainty in this world of political corruption. The Act
Two exchanges between Isabella and Angelo represent a problematically early
peak among the production's highlights. As Fielding's Isabella argues for
her brother's life, her command of difficult language is persuasive. Evans'
Angelo does not appear to struggle with tightly held moral principles before
succumbing to his lust, but his transformation from a petty administrator
with a fascist air to a sexual predator is expertly handled.
- Other highlights are provided by Lucio and Pompey. The latter is a natural
spiv, offering a rare dash of colour (both visual and aural) beyond Isabella's
coat. Employing an accent originating near, if not actually on, the banks
of the Mersey, Simon Trinder (as Pompey) easily outshines his employer (Ishia
Bennison's rather monotone Mistress Overdone) and comes close to surpassing
Lucio in the audience's affections. Still, John Lloyd Fillingham's Lucio provides
the production with its comedic heart. Fillingham's style approaches that
of the comedian Harry Hill, and although he manages to brighten the darkest
corners of a bleak Vienna, his arguably unjust end seems nothing more than
a comic pratfall.
- Ultimately, this production's biggest conundrum (as is often the case in
productions of Measure for Measure) is the relationship between Duke
Vincentio and Isabella. Here, the conception of the Duke as the arch-cynic
in a world of cynics (Isabella excepted) has the potential to resolve the
problem of their betrothal and Isabella's silent accession. This potential
is never fulfilled. The Duke's initial retreat from power does have an unavoidably
cynical element, and the 1940s setting emphasises that aspect of the play's
morality. In addition, Paul Higgins' Duke is merely a more authoritative,
though less starchy, version of Angelo. This Duke has enough confidence in
his power and status to dispense the justice of the final act barefoot and
jacket-less. His skill as a practised manipulator is clearly evident when
he makes thinly veiled sexual advances to Isabella while still disguised as
a friar. This much is consistent. However, Isabella's moral certainty never
falters, and without her conversion to cynicism the production remains a disjointed
procession punctuated by lively set pieces. Nevertheless, there is little
to fault in Paul Higgins' performance as the Duke, although his use of a variable
Scottish accent when he is disguised as a friar is occasionally distracting.
- Almost in tacit recognition of the production's lack of consistency, there
are several scenes that seem to be constructed entirely out of the need to
entertain. The repeated appearance of an almost entirely naked Barnadine (Bill
Nash) and the elaborate guillotine scene achieve much audience reaction, but
do not add to the sense of the play. Indeed, the lasting impression left by
this Measure for Measure is of some fine entertainment provided by
first rate actors working with a flawed concept.
Responses to this piece intended for
the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).