Measure for Measure, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


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The Independent Culture

The red-light district of Vienna is one big bondage club in Roxana Silbert's blackly droll and provocative new production of Measure for Measure.

Half-naked men groan orgasmically as they tweak their nipple-clamps, or suffocate in elaborate gas masks or get whipped by ooh-la-la maids in front of a huge kinky curtain of leather tassels bathed in pink neon. There are pointed reminders of this S & M world in the new draconian dispensation of Angelo, the severe deputy tasked by the departing Duke to stamp out sleaze in his absence. The neck-braces and ankle-chains here look like fetishist gear in a crack-down where restraint in no longer a game played at the edges of the consensual. Those curtain tassels turn into prison bars. The implication is that the fanatical Puritanism of men like the zealous deputy is erotic desire in deep denial.

All of which leads one to expect correspondingly seismic tremors of perverted passion when Jamie Ballard's leather-corseted Angelo loses his icy self-control in the face of Isabella, the novice nun come to plead with him for her brother's life. But the rather bland Ballard and the intense, sharp-featured Jodie McNee aren't yet releasing the full disturbing power of the great encounters between these absolutist kindred spirits. When, forgetting herself in the fervour of her argument, this Isabella lays a beseeching hand on Angelo's breast, there's no sense of him registering an illicit electrical charge before he fastidiously removes it.

Most productions these days emphasise the awkward gap between the pretensions of the Duke to be kind of a Providence figure, when he returns to manipulate events disguised as a friar, and the embarrassing reality in which his presumptuous plans are checked at every turn. But the stakes are lowered here in a performance by Raymond Coulthard that presents him as a smilingly smug conjuror who is in arch, relaxed complicity with the audience as he shows off his magic tricks (spiriting pre-written letters from his sleeves) and cheap. corny coups de theatre (springing up from the funeral bier on which he has smuggled himself back into Vienna). Coulthard does it very well but you need a Duke with a more compulsive emotional investment in his inflated self-image to explain, say, his hatred of Lucio, the libellous gossip splendidly portrayed by Paul Chahidi as a treacherous, jumped-up little nudge-nudge-wink-wink merchant. The city's riff-raff and prison population are brought to wonderfully unsavoury comic life in a penetrating production that is, however, sometimes better in theory than in execution.