Measure for Measure at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
In dark times, dark comedy is best, and Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s darkest. Although this is a new production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, it is set in 1975, when the world was in even more chaos than it is today.
With unemployment, inflation, identity crises and political scandals on the rise, and energy dropping, most people would want to flee, and that is exactly what the Duke (Hattie Ladbury) does. Unfortunately his city is left in the hands of Angelo (Ashley Zhangazha), a dictator who only makes the climate more perilous – especially when he not only forbids premarital sex, but makes it punishable by death. This is a problem for Claudio (Josh Zaré), a so-called “upstanding gentleman”, who impregnates his partner, Juliet (Eloise Secker), before their wedding. So his sister, Isabella (Georgia Landers), a nun, sets out to beg Angelo to spare him. The cost, however, is her virginity.
Just as immaculate as Isabella is the set construction, which is to be expected from The Globe theatre company. Regardless, they bring the 1600s to the 1970s; with the columnar structure, audiences could either be in a grand Jacobean castle, or a refurbished dwelling of the 70s. Although it is a less grand production, the intimate setting makes it feel more real. It is fittingly a cosy candlelit venue for the start of the cosy season. Flames almost ignite amid the twisted chemistry between Isabelle and Angelo throughout, which makes viewers actually question whether she will give him what he crudely desires.
Despite the good-and-evil juxtaposition between the characters, most of them aren’t black-and-white: director Blanche McIntyre presents shades of grey. In fact, in staple Shakespearean fashion, the actors take on multiple roles, each a different shade, with their own nuances. For instance, Juliet is a completely different person to Pompey (both played by Eloise Secker): where Juliet is a reserved woman with one sexual partner, Pompey is an outspoken brothel worker. But in this production, both women are valued, neither is shamed. Throughout, all women are respected, particularly as the story is told from the unique perspective of Isabella (Georgia Landers).
Despite being Shakespeare’s “problem” play, there are no problems here, because they are all solved. The plot points and motifs covered are very much relevant to the present everyday: consent, the male gaze, religion, to name a few. There is no shortage of twists, and the show takes a completely unexpected turn. The Duke is even played by a woman, which already goes against old patriarchal views – the real tragedy of those plays. Even knowing the synopsis wouldn’t spoil this different take on a dark tale. And, most of all, McIntyre makes us question the corruption of power. Can justice actually be achieved?
Photo: Helen Murray
Measure for Measure is at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 4th December until 15th January 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.