Other Shakespeare plays may have higher body-counts, but none is more brutal than Measure for Measure in the view it presents of human nature; and few productions have been more alive to that streak of cruelty than Simon McBurney's National Theatre/ Complicite co-production, first seen at the National in 2004 and returning, recast, after a world tour.
The unwillingness to soften the play's edges is apparent from the very start: Tom Pye's design places the action on a stark metal stage, lit from above by a skeletal lighting rig. This works well both for the austerity of the Viennese establishment, headed by a Duke (McBurney himself) in military uniform, and for the sordid underworld of wide boys and trollops - the sleaze enhanced here by TV monitors dotted around the stage, showing blurred pornographic images. (Later, the monitors focus on the actors, placing them under surveillance, capturing - the word is appropriate - their expressions.) Establishment and underworld are, you infer, essentially alike, both working on the presumption of human weakness. And we have to assume, too, that when the Duke pretends to leave Vienna - actually, he hangs around, disguised as a friar - he knows perfectly well the sort of thing that's going to happen.
The main thing that happens is that Angelo, his priggish stand-in, tries to blackmail the conspicuously virtuous Isabella into sleeping with him, promising to spare her condemned brother Claudio.
The unusual severity of Naomi Frederick's Isabella - a nunnery is definitely the right place for her - shifts the play's balance in interesting ways. For one thing, Angelo's lust is not so much a fall from grace as a logical progression from his perversely rigid puritanism: it's Isabella's virtue that turns him on, not her looks.
Angus Wright gets Angelo's repression and self-loathing nicely, but could go further in suggesting the fanatical edge: I wasn't convinced by the scene in which he makes his offer, virtually raping Isabella, leaving her half-naked, shaking with shame. But the aftermath of this scene is intriguing: in the past, I've tended to side with Claudio when he begs Isabella to swap her virtue for his life; but after her ordeal here, sympathies are reversed.
McBurney finds persuasive solutions to some of the play's most gnawing problems. The moment in the final scene when the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella, then hastily passes on ("But fitter time for that") is explained by Isabella's obvious dismay. And the last thing you see before the final blackout is the Duke beckoning her to accompany him to a marriage bed that has appeared upstage: her expression makes it clear that she has walked into a trap every bit as dangerous as the deal Angelo offered. Like so much here, it's ingenious and horribly believable.
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