Reviewed by Matthew Forrest
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Hey, have you heard the one about the powerful older man who offered a young woman help in return for sexual favours? You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m speaking of the latest scandal to engulf Westminster or Hollywood but I’m referring to the plot of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Measure for Measure is the is the final production for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s mini residency at the Lowry. Despite being four years shy of its 400-year anniversary this is a story that arguably has more resonance now than it ever has: the ill treatment of women and abuse of power by unscrupulous and seemingly omnificent men.
Set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, the Duke of Vienna has taken a sabbatical, leaving his deputy, Angelo in charge. Angelo is harsh and swift at implementing law and order to the city, while a young man Claudio, falls foul of the new changes to the law. He is sentenced to death for impregnating his fiancé. Claudio’s Sister Isabella, who is training as a nun hears of her brother’s plight and is soon up before Angelo pleading for her sibling’s life. The interim leader agrees to clemency in return Isabella must sleep with him. Isabella is repulsed by the very notion of this, but what can she do? Go up against the most powerful man in the city, it’s her word against his and who would believe her. Isabella soon encounters a kindly friar, who agrees to assist her with a plot to bring down Angelo, however the friar is really the Duke of Vienna returning to the area so he can get a a true measure of the city.
It is easy to see why this is referred to as one of Shakespeare’s more “problematic” works. On the one hand, this is a story about the abuse of power, as well as the wretched treatment of women. Whilst at the same to there are some comedic elements to the production in the form of the Duke’s deception and host of colourful yet despicable characters including the cunning pimp, Pompey, and slimy sycophant Lucio. Director Gregory Doran manages to reign in all these elements to tell an engaging, fluid, and entertaining story, which does not shy way from the more despicable facets of the narrative.
Sandy Grierson is fantastic as loathsome Angelo; there is an understated menace to his performance, helped by the fact that he has more a passing resemblance to a certain Russian head-of-state. Antony Byrne is also on fine form as the Duke, he is both strong and flawed, whilst his exchanges with Joseph Arkley’s Lucio offer up some of the productions lighter moments. However, at the centre of the production is exceptional performance by Lucy Phelps as Isabella, sometimes strong, sometimes vulnerable, it is her angst riddled turn that highlights the gravitas of the situation.
The superb acting works hand in hand with the high production values, there is very little in the way of set set design; instead, a change of location is signified by the use of projected images at the back of the stage. Save for a few chairs and the use of two-way mirrors, set design is minimal which if anything intensifies the claustrophobia of the situation. The stage at the Lowry seemed to grow, as the narrative continues leaving the characters firmly in the spotlight, with no place to hide. In addition, the score by composer Paul Englishby, opens with a beautiful waltz, but soon shifts into darker territory, providing a sense of menace and foreboding.
Despite being on uncomfortable ground with its subject matter, this is an accessible, engaging production that is made even more fascinating by its relevance today. This may not be one of the ‘bards’ best-known plays but it is filled with twists and turns, none more so than the close 10 seconds of the play which add to the cynical nature to this intelligent piece
Measure for Measure is at the Lowry till 5th October. Tickets available: here.
Tags: Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare, Gregory Doran, Drama, Theatre, Sandy Grierson, Antony Byrne, Lucy Phelps, Joseph Arkley