Measure for Measure, Almeida Theatre, London

A Shakespearean problem solved
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The Independent Culture

This is an extraordinarily fresh and arresting take on Measure for Measure. It is as if every moment in the play has been pondered anew.

I thought I had the play sussed. Now I'm not so sure. Certainly, my brain was buzzing with unanticipated questions as I left the Almeida, where Michael Attenborough's brilliantly acted, wickedly well-designed and largely modern-dress production is gracing the stage. It is also the most blackly comic interpretation of this notoriously problematic piece that I have seen.

Where to begin? Well, with Rory Kinnear's consummately original and beautifully executed performance as Angelo, the rigidly righteous hypocrite who, put in temporary charge as deputy Duke, cracks down on sexual vice in Vienna with all the draconian zeal of a secret sufferer. There are many ways of playing the part – one of the more interesting to date being to insinuate that Angelo is an Eichmann-like bureaucratic stickler (as portrayed by Daniel Evans for the RSC), who succumbs to lust while keeping the Third Reich's train timetable on track.

Kinnear and Attenborough seem to have taken off from the perception that it is often weak, pedantic nerds who turn nasty and authoritarian once they get their hands on the helm – and that it is often just such men who resort to rape, or the threat of it. So, Kinnear's Angelo is like some bearded, geeky, think-tank wonk, uneasy in his slightly sweaty skin and full of plosive emphases of speech in an effort to disguise an always-incipient stammer.

Presented with Anna Maxwell-Martin's stunning Isabella, he shrinks into himself and becomes a figure out of an Alan Ayckbourn farce. Preparing for their second meeting, he painfully and klutzily inserts contact lenses, so he can dispense with his unsightly specs, and scurries around haplessly, rearranging the room.

As performed by the great Maxwell Martin, Isabella is a mix of the kind of absolutist who is a demagogue waiting to happen (some of her blazing oratorical gestures make her look as if she has been schooled by political image consultants) and a residually pained, vulnerable human being. Having seized hectoring advantage of the situation, she winds up on Angelo's side of the desk before being pinned down on the same piece of furniture by this lustful little power-abuser.

A Renaissance painting of the Rape of the Sabine Women adorns the wall of the government offices. This wall keeps splitting apart, to create two revolving mini-walls. On one side of each of these are the sleazy street doors where prostitutes ply their trade before they are removed; on the other, the niches of the nunnery or the state prison. It creates an interchangeable Madonna-whore effect that is alert to the play's key insight: that being on the right and the wrong side of the law is always a case of "there but for the grace of God go I". The lowlife characters are played to perfection and resurface, dream-like, in the world of punitive correction. Thus the sublime Pompey/Froth double act appears again as the jailer and Barnardine, the matted, drunken prisoner who refuses to be executed as he is too hungover to go to his Maker.

Every flickering moment in this eerily well-paced production quivers with possibilities. I loved the way that after concocting an ingeniously cruel punishment for Lloyd Hutchinson's hilariously louche, Irish Lucio, Ben Miles's psychologically searching Duke has the grace to laugh at the comic elaboration of the penalty and commute it. And I so admired it that even when she flings herself into the role of asking for forgiveness for Angelo, Maxwell Martin, in the course of staring hard at her erstwhile oppressor, wavers for a vertiginous few seconds in her crucial bid for clemency. Truly thrilling.

To 10 April (020 7359 4404)

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