The opening of this Measure For Measure is a classic instance of the kind of straining for innovation that's all too common now at the RSC. Other productions have communicated the dubious haste with which the Duke dumps the responsibility for tightening the laws in licentious Vienna on to another man and the self-defeating contradictoryness of choosing a deputy he is out to expose as a hypocrite.
Other productions have suggested, too, that the Duke is in the middle of a profound nervous crisis.
They have always let him hang around long enough to hand over power in person before slipping away and returning in his friar disguise.
Here, though, the idea of a ruler in extremis is itself carried to lurid extremes. To the accompaniment of blaring nervous-breakdown music and with flashed-up doomy text predicting the violent fall of Babylon, there's an introductory dumbshow where we see Robert Glenister's haunted Duke tormentedly babbling his instructions in private onto a phonographic cylinder. It's through this crackly recording that his wishes become known.
Striking, yes, but also forced and gimmicky, involving a trite rejuggling of the text.
Distracting comedy is extracted from the fact that the disembodied voice of the Duke starts to address Angelo (a disappointingly diffuse and over- theatrical Stephen Boxer) a few seconds before he arrives and the needle, which predictably gets stuck at the end, has to be put back for his benefit. Angelo smirks when he finds an empty bottle of liquor by the Duke's chair: it's too obvious that he is filling the place of a man he has ceased to respect. In this production, the ruler returns in a double incognito, posing as a friar who is also blind.
In theory, it sounds a smart move to have him tapping about with a cane - an ironic hint that there is a kind of myopia in this overseeing interferer with people's lives that is not pretend. But that idea never comes properly into focus and restricted to tactile contact and the briefest of snatched looks, Glenister can't give much shading to his developing relationship with Clare Holman's forceful, luminous Isabella, who in this staging seems to be sexually awakened rather than disgusted by the Duke's amatory overtures at the end.
The production has some saving graces. Fluttering his eyelashes in the kind of come-on that's a mocking put-down, Jimmy Chisholm brings a terrific epicene irreverence and grinning schadenfreude to the Pompey. But Tom Piper's wooden set, which concentrates the action on the central area of the main stage, has the characters rushing up and down a steep sweeping staircase for no better reason than that it happens to be there. And the surprise armed take-over with which the Duke here resumes power seems typical of a production that goes to showy exaggerated lengths without quite getting the play's intellectual measure.
Paul TaylorReuse content