Measure for Measure, Olivier, National Theatre, London

A triumph of sleaze and CCTV

The red-light district of Vienna is surpassingly sleazy in Simon McBurney's deeply arresting modern-dress revival of Measure for Measure, presented now in the Olivier in a co-production between the National Theatre and his own brilliant company, Theatre Complicite. At Mistress Overdone's knocking-shop, flabby, stripped-to-the-waist mid-lifers grope their groins in a bored sort of way to the porn channel that's pumping out hard-core fare on the TV monitors, while mini-skirted whores nurse the babies which the bourgeois customers have left them as little reminders of their visits.

It all looks about as aphrodisiac as a beer belly or cellulite, and it suggests that if the city authorities want to clean up this act, they would be better advised to start with the hypocrisy of the "respectable" folk who exploit the sex workers rather than the other way round. Which makes the plan of the Duke of Vienna all the more inexplicable. He takes a sabbatical, handing over power to his ice-cold deputy, Angelo. But the Duke, who returns incognito, disguised as a friar to monitor the savage reforms of his understudy, knows that there is something in Angelo's past that makes him not all that he claims to be. So what kind of game does he think he's playing?

McBurney has not directed a Shakespearean drama in over a decade. Apparently, it's his enthusiasm for the Travelex £10 season in the Olivier and for the new kinds of audience it has created that has lured him back to the Bard for this project. He offers a highly abstract staging of Measure for Measure - the characters move, sometimes in synchronised slow motion, into expressive patterns on a central stage, their encounters in what looks to be a surveillance state, flashed up as grainy CCTV footage on the screens. The proceedings often work by a principle of simultaneous action. Marooned in their separate worlds, Claudio (Ben Meyjes), the man on death row for fornication, and his pregnant girlfriend Juliet (Vinette Robinson) remain on stage in eloquent counterpoint to scenes elsewhere that are insensitively deciding their fates.

Not that there's any shortage of raw passion or rude black comedy. As the severe deputy, Angelo, Paul Rhys is extraordinarily compelling, demonstrating how closely akin are ice and fire. He plays him as pallid, quiveringly sensitive martinet whose self-chastisements (drawing blood from his arm with a razor blade) are pervertedly orgasmic. When he is alone, the honesty of his introspection is positively scorching. You can see why he's sexually aroused by Naomi Frederick's militantly virginal Isabella who says she'd rather be whipped ("the impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies") than lay down her chastity for her brother's life. He's turned on by her ferocious absolutism (he shoves her hand through his fly to feel his erection) because it is a distorted reflection of his own.

Beginning as almost absurdly portentous and concluding as chillingly so, David Troughton's Duke brings about a "happy" ending as much by intimidation as by effecting a change of heart in others. The crude, hand-to-mouth nature of his botched plot, with its absurd substitutions, is drolly satirised in slapstick execution sequences performed in silhouette. The look of horror on Angelo's face when the ruler, with more than a hint of threat in his voice, proposes marriage to Isabella, suggests that for the disgraced deputy, this blatant mismatch is the most excruciating punishment.

Significantly, the one person the Duke can't forgive is Toby Jones's very funny Lucio, a corrupt slacker who likes to pose as being in the know but whose relationship to power is compulsively that of pin to balloon.

In rep to 31 July

(020-7452 3000)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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