Measure for Measure

This is a production fascinated by the psychological dissection of individual souls, but without much concern for the real-world consequences of its protagonists’ moral and marital manoeuvres.

‘There is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it’. Well quite. Act V of Michael Attenborough’s Measure for Measure at the Almeida presents the unedifying spectacle of a ruling class so rapt in the contemplation of its own emotional angst that the state may go merrily to wrack for all that any of them cares. This is a production fascinated by the psychological dissection of individual souls, but without much concern for the real-world consequences of its protagonists’ moral and marital manoeuvres.

Shakespeare’s sleaze-infested Vienna isn’t much in evidence either, despite a promising start, with dance music thumping insistently through the walls of Duke Vincentio’s swanky office (discreetly adorned with images of impeccably classical sexual violence). Trevor Cooper’s unrepentant bruiser of a Pompey radiates enough deceptively genial crookedness to lead a whole city into sin. But his claim that the prison is full of his old punters resounds hollowly, with only a sad (short) parade of girls wrapped in blankets to testify to the success of Angelo’s hard-line ethical crusade.

Within these limits, there’s some fine and intelligent acting on display. Rory Kinnear contrives to make Angelo perversely loveable in his flustered, fumbling attempt at a seduction. Anna Maxwell Martin, by contrast, doesn’t hesitate to let us see the self-righteous fury that fuels Isabella’s principled resistance to his sexual advances. Trying to untangle the ensuing complications, Ben Miles’ Duke is a compelling (and occasionally infuriating) portrait of liberal decency bedevilled by self-doubt; a good man failing to negotiate an accommodation between other people’s destructive certainties.

Making the case for tolerance, Lloyd Hutchinson as Lucio is a smooth-talking swaggerer, unprincipled, unheroic and eminently disarming, ducking niftily round corners to elude the unwelcome attentions of the law. And David Annen’s Provost is a beacon of battered integrity – painstaking, exhausted and doggedly humane.

With a company so gifted, it’s a shame that its members never quite cohere into a united dramatic ensemble. And once we’re in among the twists and turns of one of Shakespeare’s more tortuous final acts, the drama’s main players gaze at one another like strangers. Mutely uncomprehending, mutually accusing, they’re each wrapped-up in their own private martyrdom. And the resulting stalemate denies the audience any shred of optimism or comfort.

Victoria Lloyd (Marianna), David Annen (Provost), Rory Kinnear (Angelo), Ben Miles (Vincentio) in Measure for Measure. Almeida Theatre. Photo: Keith Pattison .

Anna Maxwell Martin (Isabella) and Rory Kinnear (Angelo) in Measure for Measure. Almeida Theatre. Photo: Keith Pattison.

Ben Miles as Vincentio. Measure for Measure, Almeida Theatre. Photo: Keith Pattison.


6 comments. Add your own »

  1. “the resulting stalemate denies the audience any shred of optimism or comfort”- is that not the point? That none of the characters are satisfied with the conclusions… Duke Vencentio is his own worst enemy- well-meaning but disorganised, and far too optimistic to think his good intent would prevail and win Isabella’s approval, who is right to refuse his proposal because of her religious devotion which has been evident throughout… Angelo deserves to be forced into marriage with the woman he betrayed- the fact is, all the characters get what they deserve by the end of the play: dissastisfaction as a result of their various flaws. The audience are meant to feel uncomfortable: It wouldn’t quite work in terms of continuity if they all joined hands and did the hokey cokey at the end.

  2. Stephe Harrop Stephe Harrop says:

    Maybe not the hokey cokey – but I am a fan of a good jig.

  3. Gosh, thank you for snubbing someone who wanted to engage in a what could have been an interesting critical discourse.

  4. Stephe Harrop Stephe Harrop says:

    Not a snub – I genuinely do approve of plays finishing with jigs (even where the play’s ending – Coriolanus, say, or Troilus and Cressida – is far from obviously upbeat). And while I agree with you that the Almeida production does aim to leave its audience feeling uncomfortable, my personal feeling is that the way its entrenched character-clashes are played out (or rather not) in the final act is both unnecessarily bleak, and unhelpfully limits the play’s possible range of meanings. Also – to be honest – I’m not sure that continuity was ever this playwright’s greatest concern.

  5. Thanks for the reply! I also apologise for mis-interpreting your first comment as sarcastic: evidently tone is better expressed verbally!

    Thank you also for clarifying your reasoning, as initially i wasn’t sure if your evaluation of the ending was based upon the company’s interpretation or a comment on the ambivalences of the text.

    You’re right in the sense that Isabella’s refusal to accept Vencentio’s proposal is dis-heartening when it could have been played either way. It’s strange that the dialogue always led to the conclusion that she would remain chaste and enter the cloister, whereas parts of the performance e.g. when she and Vencentio *disguised as the monk* had the odd, i suppose you could say ‘flirty’ moment in the prison indicated the opposite- and then as you say, they chose to revert this and end it on a slightly bleak note… Perhaps they wanted to create a sort of ‘will they, won’t they’ dynamic?

    However, as i said before: i think the characters got what the deserved- i think the Almeida did the best interpreative job possible on a complex and ambiguous text. Just proves subjectivity still reigns supreme!

    Thank you once again for responding!

  6. Stephe Harrop Stephe Harrop says:

    here’s one more subjective opinion on the matter, just to add to the mix:


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Info and Credits

Measure for Measure is at the Almeida until 10 April 2010.

For tickets and further info visit the Almeida website.

Read Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare courtesy of MIT's Complete Works website.

Cover photo © Keith Pattison.

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