Mark Rylance's Duke of Vienna cuts a lonely, fragile figure - white-faced, weighed down by his sumptuous costume and by the cares of office - at the start of John Dove's Elizabethan dress version of Measure for Measure at Shakespeare's Globe. He gabbles his parting orders with the unseemly haste of a man desperate to be off and to dump the responsibilities of state and the task of moral rearmament on to his severe deputy Angelo (Liam Brennan).
The next time we see the Duke in this production, he's emerging from a smelly laundry basket and trying to cadge a friar's outfit for his incognito return to monitor progress. Secret conveyance in a pile of dirty linen is a mode we associate with the harried buffoons in a sex farce (Falstaff, say, in The Merry Wives of Windsor) not with men who have ambitions to act as an Earthly Providence. But here the emphasis is on the Duke as a hapless, comic protagonist forced by the indignities of fate to work from hand-to-mouth in his efforts to bring this recalcitrant material to some to sort of happy resolution.
Having to limp about because of a thorn in his bare foot, this anxious little bungler of a friar is constantly being upstaged by events he has not foreseen and ludicrously taken aback by results of what he's requested. When the substituted head of Ragozine is brought to him in a bloody bag, he's hard put not to faint at the sight of this stroke of luck. In his negotiations with the wronged Isabella (a fervent and forceful Sophie Thompson), he's pathetically keen to have all her to himself, even to the extent of butting in by walloping her condemned brother with his Bible and pushing him off to meditate on death. This leads to a telling touch in the last act, when, as the returned Duke, he gives Isabella barely a second to register his showiest coup de theatre - that her brother has survived the supposed execution - before he is there at her elbow shyly attempting to milk this "miracle" for its mating value. She responds with rigid, open-mouthed incredulity.
Rylance is very funny and appealing in his interpretation of the Duke as a lonely, amiable klutz, jumpy with embarrassment at his own stratagems. There is no hint, though, that you might find something sinister in this ruler's compulsive emotional meddling and his contradictory self-defeating approach in the choice of deputies. I've seen productions that have highlighted the unlovely affinities between the Duke and Angelo: both are control freaks and both have predatory designs on Isabella. Here, though, the point of comparison seems to be more indulgent and debatable: that these are two untested young men who are pitched into new situations and make a mess of things.
Dove's production is absorbing but, by comparison with Simon McBurney's nightmarish modern vision of the play currently in rep at the National, it feels too benign. With a cosy drag Mistress Overdone, the low-life episodes give about as lurid a sense of the sex industry as a trip to a pantomime. The night I saw the show, Liam Brennan's insufficiently intense Angelo was hissed for his dastardly sexual blackmail of Isabella. At the National, it would be impossible to do the same to Paul Rhys because his transfixingly complex perversion takes the breath away.
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