THEATRE / Hollow men: Paul Taylor reviews Cheek by Jowl's Measure for Measure at the Lyric, Hammersmith

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Were he ever to be deposed, you feel that the Duke in Declan Donnellan's Cheek by Jowl version of Measure for Measure would be uncommonly well-suited to an alternative career in window- dressing. Stephen Boxer's Friar- Duke, underlining his position as the disguised stage-manager of these problematic proceedings, is seen actively manhandling the play's personnel into tableaux of his choice as though they were so many shop dummies.

Of course, human nature and contingency being what they are, life proves to be somewhat resistant to the patterns he seeks to impose on it. Here this is conveyed with a blackly comic clarity - one of the justifications for the stark, diagrammatic approach to the play which Donnellan has taken in a production that substitutes contemporary England for renaissance Vienna.

The stage is black and bare save for a few chairs, a central desk symbolising authority, and a long banner-like strip of red silk which, in a pertinently ambiguous touch, manages, depending on how it is lit, to represent the law or the red light district. In a manner that may have been inspired by Richard Eyre's staging of Murmuring Judges (another play which suggests that what is moral and what is legal aren't necessarily the same), the imprisoned Claudio remains as a potent visual presence throughout the scenes of haggling and machinating on his behalf. By keeping you in mind of the life at risk, this stage picture hammers home just how self-indulgently precarious the Duke's scheme is.

When Adam Kotz played the young curate who is almost unhinged with evangelical zeal in Hare's Racing Demon, I remember thinking what a brilliant Angelo he would make, that boyish, innocent face of his a peculiarly disturbing arena for the twitches and stony starings of fanaticism. What's peculiar is that I also had Stephen Boxer, who plays the Duke, marked down as a future Angelo, particularly after seeing his excellent portrait of a grim Puritan governor and ethnic cleanser in The Clearing. This, then, is an intriguing piece of casting by Donnellan, intimating that there's a spooky sense in which the Duke and Angelo are doppelgangers, both control freaks, both, in their different ways, angling to get their hands on Isabella.

As this novice nun, Anastasia Hille inflects her lines so that you get a truly thrilling sense of this girl's intellectual mettle and passion for virtue that more than matches Angelo's late-blooming passion for vice. Eyes tightly shut and fingers clenched, she babbles prayers in a desperate effort to block out her brother Claudio's entreaties that she sacrifice her virginity for his life. The 'happy ending' is made even more hollow in this version because when Danny Sapani's Claudio is produced alive at the end, he pointedly refuses to fall into his sister's open arms.

The production is often extremely funny. I particularly liked the idea that Mariana, whom Tennyson co-opted as a picturesque symbol of late Romantic lassitude and death-longing, might actually have found some consolation in the odd vodka bottle or two over at her moated grange. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays her as a comically squiffy, blues-singing broad. Indeed, she's so benignly befuddled, you're led to suspect that she might even make a balls-up of the bed-trick. An excellent touch in an excellent production.

(Photograph omitted)

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