THEATRE / Better than a slap in the face: Measure for Measure - RSC, Stratford

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The Independent Culture
The RSC gave us a recent Tempest in which Ariel, when liberated, spat contemptuously in Prospero's face. Now, in Steven Pimlott's lucid and gripping main-stage production, it gives us a Measure for Measure where, at the end, Stella Gonet's Isabella fetches the Duke (Michael Feast) a stinging slap across the chops when he makes his tactless, last-minute pitch to become an item with her.

No sooner has she hit him than she's passionately kissing him better, though, and then she has second thoughts about that response, too, abruptly recoiling with little sobs, still clearly in shock from the emotional turmoil his scheming has caused.

Pimlott brings out the grim farce of the drama's wilfully cobbled-together happy ending by allowing the lights to fade very slowly on a state of ludicrous wavering. It's like looking at a couple paralysed with hapless indecision before a revolving door.

A wily alertness to the play's black comedy is the production's great strength, along with the striking design by Ashley Martin-Davies which presents, in its great curved wall at the back, a fluorescent-lit vision of a modern prison. On the upper balcony of this, and under brutal guard, Pimlott is able to position, at pointed moments, the neglected, victimised characters whose fate is being so hazardously decided below.

Looking as though he was probably born in a wing- collar and tight waistcoat, Alex Jennings's Angelo is excellent at both the puritan repression and the volcanic rage of libidinous release. Again, there's a splendid dark humour in the performance. When Isabella, returning for her second confrontation, greets him with 'I am come to know your pleasure', he can't resist letting out a lewd chortle at the unconscious irony of it. And in the final scene, when ordered to marry Mariana, he stalks off with all his usual inhuman, extremist obedience and with not so much as a glance at the woman he is about to wed, who is put to the humiliation of racing after him.

I was unsure about the suggestion that the children had become prostitutes in Vienna, since this implies that grinding poverty not years of lax rule has depraved the populace. Where the recent Cheek by Jowl Measure for Measure intimated that the rejected Mariana had taken to the bottle in her moated grange, this version proposes, less persuasively, that she has turned into a paintbrush-wielding Rolf Harris.

Of the excellence of much of the production, there can be no doubt - particularly not of Barry Lynch's wonderfully sardonic and insinuating Lucio, a cocky Irish joker who seems to be drawn by some disastrous sixth sense to rile the disguised Duke. When this latter hurls back at him the apple core Lucio has dumped on him, a grinning Lynch simply produces a second apple and starts munching on it. A beautifully deft way of signalling the sort of incorrigibility no legal system could rectify.

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