Measure for Measure, a co-production of Theatre de Complicite and the National Theatre Company at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, 2004.

David Nicol
Dalhousie University

Nicol, David. "Review of Measure for Measure, a co-production of Theatre de Complicite and the National Theatre Company at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, 2004". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 13.1-8 <URL:>.


Directed by Simon McBurney. Duke Vincentio: David Troughton. Angelo: Paul Rhys. Isabella: Naomi Frederick. Claudio: Ben Meyjes. Lucio: Toby Jones. Escalus: Mike Grady. Mariana: Meredith MacNeill. Juliet: Vinette Robinson. Provost: Angus Wright. Mistress Overdone: Tamzin Griffin. Pompey: Richard Katz. Elbow: Kostas Philippoglou. Froth/Abhorson: Clive Mendus. Barnardine: Johannes Flaschberger. Friar Peter/Justice: Steven Crossley. Francisca: Cait Davis. Servant to Angelo: Rhydian Jones. Boy: Jamie R. Bradley.

  1. There are many challenges involved in performing Measure for Measure in a theatrical culture that values consistency and coherence, such as the villain who disappears for half the play and the abrupt shifts from psychological introspection to fairytale logic. However, one of the biggest problems may be the characterization of the Duke. Actors cast in the role must fight with the text to find a psychological throughline that answers the many questions the play leaves open: why does the Duke absent himself? What motivates his actions when disguised as Friar Lodowick? And in what ways are his moral values different to those professed by Angelo? There have been many engaging attempts at finding such a throughline. However, the most remarkable aspect of Simon McBurney's Theatre de Complicite production at the National Theatre was that, instead of trying to 'solve' the Duke's character, David Troughton's performance continuously highlighted the ways in which the play deliberately presents the Duke as an enigma. Rather than treat this mysteriousness as a problem, McBurney made it into the production's organizing structure, building to a final revelation in a breathtaking flourish at the very end of the play.

  2. The key to McBurney's interpretation was that the Duke was in disguise from the very beginning of the play. Clearly unwilling to stage himself to the public's eyes, Troughton's Duke was shrouded in a trenchcoat and dark glasses as he left Vienna by helicopter. His insecurity was understandable, as the public's eyes were very much evidence: video monitors were used on the stage throughout, with key speeches appearing on TV like press conferences or show trial footage. Escaping from this constant display, the Duke was shrouded in mystery even as the story began.

  3. When he returned, shrouded this time in a black cowl that hid his eyes, the production continued to stress not only the Duke's mystery, but also Shakespeare's deliberate emphasis on that mystery. One of the key sequences became Lucio's chat with 'Friar Lodowick' about the old Duke's moral character, in which Lucio claims the Duke was a libertine who "would mouth with a beggar though she smelt brown bread and garlic" (3.1.440-1). There are various ways an actor might colour the Duke's response: outrage, hurt, shame. Here, Troughton offered no vocal colouring at all to the lines; his shrouded, emotionless responses suggested, but did not confirm, the possibility that Lucio might well be telling the truth.

  4. Troughton's performance was thus not a psychological one, as he emphasized the gaps in our knowledge of the Duke. In contrast, Paul Rhys's performance as Angelo was extremely psychologized, building on the text's complex, self-interrogatory soliloquies to produce a monster of self-loathing even more frightening because he hated himself so much. Rhys's Angelo was apparently chosen by the Duke to be his successor because he was telegenic, as the banks of TV monitors eagerly displayed his stern features. Yet he was, in private, a gangly, awkward creature, grotesquely disturbed by his own body ("What's this?" he delivered to his erection), who took obscene pleasure in unraveling his desires to Isabella, finally placing her hand inside his trousers.

  5. Rhys's Angelo was easy to loath, but Troughton's enigmatic portrayal of the Duke prevented the production from being a simple battle between good and evil. Indeed, the production's attitude toward sexuality and Angelo's war on it was not clear-cut. Unlike some recent productions, notably Michael Boyd's at the RSC in 1998, in which the Viennese lowlife have been sanctified as icons of sexual liberation, McBurney's depicted the sleaze of Vienna as uniformly unappealing. Sex was a grubby, dirty operation performed between dead-eyed whores and their heartless clients. Richard Katz's Pompey was an especially memorable creation, an articulate Cockney in a cheap leather trenchcoat who had an entirely businesslike attitude to his trade, while Clive Mendus's Froth was a beery lout, disturbingly casual about his misdemeanors with Elbow's wife. Furthermore, Claudio was remarkably unsympathetic, played by Ben Meyjes as a sneering toff whose response to Isabella's plea that he accept death was an eye-rolling "Oh, Isabella" (as if to say, "Have you still not grown out of that virtue hogwash?"). Only his powerful rendition of the death speech, and some interpolated images of Julietta's horror at his 'death', gave the character any redeeming qualities. Yet none of this made Angelo's regime appear necessary. The prison was portrayed as a terrible place. McBurney emphasized its horrors through an unpleasant slopping-out sequence; numerous vicious beatings of the prisoners; and in the Guantanamo-style orange overalls that allied Angelo with the hypocrisy of George W. Bush, whose image appeared briefly on the video screens during Lucio's lines about a "sanctimonious pirate" (1.2.7).

  6. The result of all this was a doubly bleak Measure for Measure unleavened by any hope that its world could change for the better. Amid this bleakness, Naomi Frederick's Isabella stood out as a surprisingly uncritical interpretation. Frederick played the character as very young, making an interesting change from the more mature and forceful Isabellas common of late. This made her meeting with Angelo, and especially the shocking sequence in which he made her touch him, even more disturbing. As Angelo slunk off, he left the devastated Isabella alone with her contaminated hand stretched out beside her in a powerful image of pollution: so powerful that even during her interview with her brother, it was easy to share her point of view, and to see her inflexibility as a ray of hope, rather than as a mere repression of the inevitable.

  7. So what, exactly, was the purpose behind this incredibly bleak production, in which it was difficult to sympathize with anything other than the rigid chastity of Isabella? In the final act, it became clear that its principal interest was to focus our attention on the Duke's potential as saviour and then to question the nature of that salvation. Was the Duke right to open the gates of Angelo's prison and release the denizens? It was difficult to agree with his choice when Johannes Flaschberger's terrifying Barnardine, portrayed as a bookish and quietly sinister serial killer, was released and walked silently to his freedom, undoubtedly to commit some new and hideous crime.

  8. Furthermore, the production concluded with the revelation that the greatest seemer was the Duke himself. When the Duke removed the costume of Friar Lodowick at the end of the play, we did not see beneath it the feeble old man that he had appeared as at the beginning of the play. Instead, we saw a third Duke, a powerful figure with a commanding voice in a black pinstripe suit. An even greater revelation was reserved for the last lines. Once again, emphasis was placed on the text's deliberate mystery about the Duke's character, as Troughton articulated clearly the Duke's determination to show "What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know" (5.1.542). What was 'behind'? With a dazzling theatrical pun, McBurney gave his answer as a row of curtains behind the Duke lifted up to reveal, at the back of the stage, a bed in what looked like a honeymoon suite, bearing a rose on its pillow. The Duke stretched out his hand to Isabella. With this devastating conclusion (to which the stunned Isabella offered no response), McBurney suggested the insane, ridiculous, but at that moment entirely believable possibility that all of the play's events had been the Duke's Byzantine plot to get Isabella into his bed. It is a mad interpretation, and one that doesn't stand up to five minute's thought - and yet the moment of sheer horror that McBurney and Troughton generated in that climax was worth a hundred more sensible readings.

Works Cited

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© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).