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Measure for Measure (1978)

Birmingham Post 28th June 1978, J.C. Trewin

Simplification is suspect: but it is not always wrong. This feverishly argued dark comedy can live in the light of purely theatrical logic without too much searching for fresh explanation.

Just four years ago, probably in the key of the Duke’s “Novelty only is in request,” we had at Stratford as silly a production as I can recall. The newest revival, directed by Barry Kyle, is certainly comforting (though it faced last night an audience determined to pluck laughter from every scene).

The uncommon idea here is merely to present the play with a forthright clarity, more or less as it was written. Its people emerge from the simplest of all-purposes black backgrounds to a final resolution on the forestage. There are productions that I shall remember more readily, but this is a good RSC standard and better than the season’s first new productions.

Michael Pennington, the equivocal Duke, who chooses to become “a looker-on here in Vienna,” is the richest speaker in the Stratford company. He acts a man, long-debated and troubled by the problems of authority (we have had various reasons for his masquerade) who is primarily a useful figure for the development of theatrical narrative.

Paola Dionisotti, compared with some Isabellas, is rather less whiter than white; she and the Duke will probably get on very well in future. Jonathan Pryce is a perfectly serviceable Angelo, that symbol of emergent lust, who has to suggest bonfires on the ice.

We get an alert, mature Lucio (John Nettles); a Mariana with fewer Tennysonian overtones than usual; and a Claudio (Allan Hendricks) who needs only to give the true Jacobean intensity to the word “thrilling.”

One innovation – when did the prisoners last sing “Every night and alle night”?

The Guardian 7th November 1979, Michael Billington

Barry Kyle’s production of “Measure for Measure”, now at the Aldwych, has undergone some major re-casting since I saw it in Stratford last year. David Suchet, Sinead Cusack and Natasha Parry have taken over as, respectively, Angelo, Isabella and Mariana. This alters the tone of the production a good deal: it in no way diminishes one of the most intelligent and sure-footed accounts of the play for a very long time.

The basic image remains the same: an austere black box, with numberless doors, that easily alternates between grim and judicial chambers and a Behanesque prison where the inmates rattle their cups against the bars on the eve of an execution. There is also the same stress on the appearance-and-reality theme. ‘O, what may man within him hide. Though angel on the outward side’ is the cornerstone of the interpretation. Just as Angelo the black-garbed puritan is revealed as a man of ingrown, thwarted sensuality, so at the end the Duke and Isabella finally lay aside the friar’s habit and the veil that have cloaked their true natures.

But though the original outline remains intact, the detail has changed enormously. Where Jonathan Pryce’s Angelo was itchy with sexual frustration, David Suchet (who is rapidly growing into a major actor) plays him as a legal precisian amazed at what he finds inside himself. ‘Do I love her?’ he asks after Isabella has left the room, weighting the crucial verb as if it has never darkened his lips before. And there is one superb moment when he lays an intellectual trap for her (if her brother’s fault was only a ‘merriment,’ why can Isabella not yield herself to him?) and is visibly hurt when she wriggles out of it. You can easily imagine Suchet as the star Viennese barrister who has kept his passion locked in his briefs.

Sinead Cusack’s Isabella is more conventional: an unworldly novice pregnant with spirituality but I liked her gentle ironic stress on the circumlocutory metaphors Isabella uses to tell her brother he’s for the chop. And there is a very striking Mariana from Natasha Parry: a mature beauty who has obviously had her trousseau ready all these years just in case fate (or a friar) came knocking at the door.

Michael Pennington’s Duke also remains an extremely brainy study of a onetime ascetic who, by putting on religious gear, discovers the worldliness buried inside his own nature. In short, a first rate evening.

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