Measure for Measure at the Barbican
The opening moment of RSC’s Measure for Measure at the Barbican sees opulently dressed revellers swirling about the stage. It’s a shame that the choreography lasts for only a few twirls before the weight of the law cracks down on the 1900s. Hereafter, the drab grey costumes of the practitioners of the law take centre stage in this well-recited and poignant but seemingly lacklustre production of Shakespeare’s notorious “problem play”.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design sees the back of the stage trimmed with gold-lined mirrors and proves to be an overt metaphor as the audience stares at its own reflection for the totality of the 2-hour-45-minute show. It seems there is a missed opportunity: the production screams, “See, the themes are relevant today!” without helping us to extrapolate further and determine which themes or why.
Director Gregory Doran offers little new to the text and the snippets of decadence make his audience crave more. The production is to-the-point and the actors do well but never fully arrest the audience’s attention. Sandy Grierson plays the rigid Angelo, who reeks of hypocrisy. And yet, his acute gawky mannerisms never evoke the fearsome hand of oppression. Likewise, Lucy Phelps as the novice nun Isabella gives it her all begging those in power to call off her brother’s execution. Once she is given her life-shattering proposition, Phelps powerfully looks out to the packed audience asking, “To who shall I complain?”, echoing the rhetoric in which survivors of sexual misconduct are also trapped. The play’s points can be inferred but are never overt. David Ajao as Pompey works hard to give the play a cunning, comic touch, but it seems disjointed and there is no unity in style or message among Measure for Measure’s many players.
This is a classical production as poorly disguised in its 1900s context as the Duke who prances back and forth between friar and lawmaker. Doran leaves it to the audience to decide what they want to take from the play. Of course, there is power in subtly. Yet the production portrays a hypocritical and meddling government without ever truly tapping into the pertinence of powerful figures who don’t play by their own rules.
Photo: Helen Maybanks
Measure for Measure is at the Barbican until 16th January 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.