THEATRE REVIEW: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

running until 14 November

The third London version of Measure for Measure this year, Joe Hill-Gibbins tackles Shakespeare’s classic ‘problem play’ with radical audacity at the Young Vic this season, creating a production that crackles with comedy and darkness. The line between the two becomes increasingly fuzzy and elusive, leading to a denouement that lands us on unstable ground.

Measure for Measure Young Vic - Keith_Pattison
(c) Keith Pattison

The visuals immediately go for full-throttle shock factor, as Hill-Gibbins and designer Miriam Buether hit us in the face with their ‘forget-everything-you-think-you-know-about-Shakespeare’ staging. As lust and licentiousness overcome the city of Vienna, heaps of blow-up sex dolls fill the stage; actors must wade through them to deliver serious dialogue, provoking widespread giggles throughout the auditorium. Left in charge of the city in the Duke’s supposed absence, Angelo’s crackdown on these vices sees the dolls thrown unceremoniously into the ‘prison’ in the back portion of the stage, where we now and then catch glimpses of faces and, ahem, appendages via the video screens on which some of the play’s action is projected.

With so much focus on the temptations of the flesh, no other angle is really explored in this play. However, there’s no doubting it’s all wildly entertaining, and a few strong comedic performances carry the aims of the production well. Tom Edden gives a scene-stealing performance as Pompey, alongside John MacKay’s laconically funny Lucio, both exhibiting plenty of wit and swagger. Yet in amongst all the laughs, this production still retains its dark, disturbing elements: Paul Ready’s Angelo is sufficiently smarmy in his hypocritical piety, and his fixated, obsessive desire. As the Duke, Zubin Varla skips between virtue and tyranny, and the audience are left constantly questioning his motives and his position as moral compass in this chaotic world. The concluding tableau has him pairing up people with zeal, physically moving them into position like pawns or puppets, and the expressions of the ensemble – ranging from discomfort to horror – reinforce this troubling finale in which the desire to control appears to spill over into cruel autocracy. As Isabella, star attraction Romola Garai puts in an intelligent and impressive performance, intense and not always likeable as the novice who protects her chastity above all things, even her brother’s life.
(c) Keith Pattison

The cast therefore negotiate the teetering balance between humour and drama with aplomb, creating uncomfortable comedy that sits well with Hill-Gibbins’s approach. However, they are threatened to be overpowered at times by the somewhat gimmicky nature of the design. While the farcical elements are funny at first, there is a section in middle of the play where silliness undermines any point to it all. The sex doll-filled stage and the handheld camera sufficiently symbolise the licentiousness of the city, and the oppressive regime Angelo attempts to enforce; there’s no need for quite so much filmed material, nor for characters to physically beat each other with the dolls. In his exuberance, at times it feels like Hill-Gibbins has lost track of why he made some of his creative decisions. This weaker section detracts from the meat of the production, and makes you realise that perhaps it’s not all as clever as you thought. Maybe it just is funny to see actors stepping through a mountain of sex dolls, without much greater meaning.

And by and large, that’s ok. This madcap romp through a substantially cut version of Measure for Measure is both joyously irreverent and suitably unsettling. Hilarious, absurd, seedy and profane, this production more than fulfils the aims of theatre as a form of entertainment.

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