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Measure for Measure (1974)

The Times 5th September 1974, Irving Wardle

Intellectually fashionable since the end of the war, “Measure for Measure” has undergone a total reversal of meaning from a parable on divine justice to a fable of social oppression. It is clearly central to the prevailing moral climate, but, with the exception of Howard Brenton’s rewritten version, no production I have seen has brought it into true focus, least of all this extravagantly Germanic treatment by Keith Hack.

Any interpretation of the play hinges on the enigmatic figure of the Duke, whose role consists of a string of unanswered questions. Unsurprisingly, Mr Hack presents him as a morally discredited fraud wearing the mask of justice. The structure of the production, in fact, is to show the forces of law and order and the underworld victims as two sides of the same coin. Dan Meaden’s drag Mistress Overdone doubles as a portly nun; the disguised Duke fondles Isabella while planning her rescue from Angelo.

The only positive characters are the straight victims Juliet and Claudio, who finally rejects his hysterically virtuous sister with a stony glare. All of which fits in with the idea that none are more sexually obsessed that the enemies of permissiveness.

So far, the production makes sense. Where it breaks down is in fitting the characters into the superstructure; and rarely on the British stage have I seen so many externally imposed performances. Barrie Ingram’s Duke, sawing the air with conjurer’s gestures, is a transparent mountebank from his furtive opening scene to his final gilded descent on a platform helpfully described “Deus Ex Machina”. Barry Stanton rigged up in tattered finery as Lucio, minces daintily through the action underling double meanings in squealing falsetto; I have never seen a less plausible performance from this fine actor.

And when we come to the underworld proper it offers nothing but artificial grotesques: James Booth’s Irish Pompey sporting a padded rump, a professional Abhorson, a Barnardine whose voice is relayed from his cell over loud-speakers; even the gentlemanly Provost is a black actor stripped to the waist.

All these are effect-seeking departures from stereotypes; doing nothing to illuminate the play’s meaning. Mr Hack has also transported the action from Vienna to Brecht’s city of Mahagonny, complete with a Weill-like score of hurry-music and tawdry nightclub numbers by Stephen Oliver, and a composite set (by Maria Bjornson) incorporating monastic and prison interiors and a gallery where all the inmates of the city congregate to greet public announcements with ironic fusillades of motor horns and football rattles.

Where the production does succeed is in passages in which the actors take over. At first sight Michael Pennington’s virile and supercilious Angelo promises another empty reversal of stage tradition. But the performance takes off magnificently in the temptation scene with Francesca Annis’s Isabella. At the climax he drops to his knees, caught between supplication, threat and trembling lust; to which she responds with paralysed horror (later repeated in the parallel scene with Claudio) as if in the embrace of a venomous snake. I have never seen this scene more thrillingly played.

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