Measure for Measure, NT Cottesloe Theatre, London

Educational, not inspirational
Click to follow

In collaboration with the London Bubble Theatre, the National Theatre has been sending this production of Measure for Measure round the schools of Britain. After working in class on the material sent ahead by the company, the students take part in a day-long exercise, some of which was used in the London performance of the play – or, rather, scenes from it. Eight actors (five white, three black) played the major parts in a stripped-down version, while Mistress Overdone, the bawd, and Pompey, the pimp, scampered around the edges of it.

The audience, however, got more exercise than they did. With different parts of the Cottesloe floor designated as the streets, the prison, the palace and the nunnery, the students and teachers were kept as busy as a crew of Pickfords men, shifting and rearranging their seats to form a playing area.

The audience were also asked to shut their eyes and imagine a dilemma, or to copy the mannerisms of someone sitting opposite. They were told to answer Isabella's "To whom should I complain?" by voting for the character of their choice. (One actor tried to influence the ballot by saying he had a GCSE in counselling.) And they were passed clipboards on which they could suggest the contents of Pompey's pockets or some candidates for Death Row in virtuous Vienna. The latter were read out by Claudio: Margaret Thatcher, presumably a teacher's choice, topped the list.

Contrary to what one might expect from this gruesome Shakespeare-can-be-fun business, the acting was rather good. Suzann McLean's Isabella did take her cue from the name of the bawd for whom she doubled, going in for a lot of wailing and hand-wringing, and Katarina Olsson's Pompey could have been any girl hiding her hair under a cap and cutely prancing and smirking. The rest of the cast, however, spoke the verse intelligently and persuasively, keeping narrative and motives clear. Saskia Portway played the two female victims, Juliet and Mariana, with dignity and delicacy, and Anthony Washington contributed suppleness and gaiety as the roguish Lucio.

On the night I attended, the teenagers (whom I could see from the gallery) were all silent and caught up in the action, even the gum-chewers in FCUK jackets. But the balance of the evening – and, with what I gathered from the teaching materials, the programme as a whole – was tipped rather too far, for my taste, toward issues rather than poetry ("Think of the way public figures are treated by the media"; "How do you think our perception of women has changed?").

To put it another way, this frequently banal and sycophantic approach subjugated the play to the students' presumed interests and capacities, rather than attempting to make the students submit to something greater than themselves. Myself, I would have confiscated those jackets and sent them off to be burnt as a lesson in respecting the social contract and the language of Shakespeare.

Touring to 18 May