Measure for Measure
Lesser performed Shakespeare play reveals the Bard's intellectual side
This article is from 2016.
Despite the EIF's ponderous programme notes suggesting that this play was written in response to political intrigue at the court of James I, Measure for Measure retains relevance thanks to the moral conundrums that drive the plot. A leader resigns his power to a viceroy, whom he hopes will apply the state's laws in a more rigorous spirit. As Cheek by Jowl and Pushkin Theatre's version makes clear, the central proposal that exposes the viceroy's corruption is more vicious than imagined in Shakespeare's time, but the key question – what is the appropriate state intervention in matters of personal morality – remains provocative and timely.
The spare set – and removal of the comic elements from the script – pares Measure for Measure down to a theatrical investigation into values. While the final scene – when everything is resolved by the return of the Duke – drags due to a series of melodramatic reveals, Declan Donnellan's direction emphasises the clash of ideas. The Duke, who despairs at his own corrupted nature, believes that the puritanical Angelo will rescue his city from the decadence he has permitted but, by posing as a holy man, is forced to recognise compassion. The puritan Angelo is exposed as a hypocrite, and would-be rapist. The moral message – that a little bit of corruption is better than a fastidious tyranny – could be applied to any government.
The ensemble is strong, the aristocrats are charismatic, the priests and nun exude piety: Pushkin Theatre place their talents at the service of text, allowing this comedy of ideas to parade Shakespeare's meditations on power and purity. It's stunning to see a production that cuts to the core of a script, exposing Shakespeare as an intelligent, subtle and provocative moral and political thinker.
Lyceum, run ended.