Measure For Measure Malaya, Riverside Studios , London

Sex and the single duke

Rhoda Koenig
Monday 11 November 2002 01:00

Seldom does a scene carry so many theatrical echoes. In a colonial outpost in Malaya, a man rogers a girl on a swing as the rain pelts down and an off-stage crooner purrs "Close Your Eyes''. There's Contact, Privates on Parade, Pennies from Heaven and Sadie Thompson, and no one has even said a word.

The silent couple are Mariana of the moated grange and the fiercely moral Angelo, deceived by the darkness and quiet into thinking he is having his way with Isabella, the novice nun he hates for rousing the lust he punishes in other men. Not only are the two women of similar height and shape: when Angelo pushes Mariana away, we see, on the handkerchief with which he wipes himself, the evidence that she, too, was a virgin.

Phil Willmott's translation of Measure for Measure to an ambiance of lianas, ceiling fans, dance-band tunes and bamboo; his severe cutting of the text; his addition of two on-stage copulations (in the other, Lucio, now a British soldier, nails a prostitute to a wall) all make for a slickly entertaining evening, but, to paraphrase the question the Devil whispered behind the leaves: it's pretty, but is it Shakespeare?

One is hard put to think of a play whose loving couples are more peculiar than those in Measure for Measure: two people who have sworn themselves to chastity, a maiden jilted and forlorn, a pair (Claudio and Juliet) pilloried for not waiting until the wedding-night; a hero who remains so aloof from the heroine that his interest in her is not revealed until the play has less than five minutes to run.

But the odd and sometimes distasteful machinations of the plot serve the idea of love as a test of character, a theme slighted here. Though Willmott has cut much of the clownish banter (for which thanks), he has also stripped a good deal of the poetry, taking away the otherworldliness that would make us sympathetic to the strange tale. The setting, of course, contributes to the flatly realistic air, as does Willmott's exploitation of its familiarity as a source of jolly japes.

It also adds an anti-colonial element that provides easy, if rather pointless, indignation (Mariana is "an abandoned Eurasian woman''; Claudio, also a Eurasian, is being punished not simply for fornication but for crossing race lines). That distracts us from and trivialises the main issue. As Angelo, Richard Dillane is repressed in a rather pallid way – only rarely does one sense his torment and self-hatred. Lourdes Faberes, a Filipina actress, seems overwhelmed by the demands of the Mariana part.

As a result of their much stronger acting, we are most taken with the characters least distressed by love: David Partridge's Lucio, a volatile mixture of office politician, good chap and vicious little rogue, and Andy de la Tour's disguised Duke, an affable, sardonic chap with the contented-lizard air of the elderly Noël Coward. When he graciously bestows his hand on Isabella, like one giving a royal command, does her open-mouthed silence convey only surprise, or horror too? Having removed so much of Shakespeare's ambiguity, the production ends on a dissonant note by introducing its own.

To 30 Nov (020-8237 1111)

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