There’s often something lurid about productions of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s play about an absentee duke, his hypocritical deputy, and the novice this deputy attempts to coerce into sex in exchange for saving her brother’s life. Set against a backdrop of the deputy, Angelo’s, efforts to cleanse the city of Vienna of its sex trade and all extra-marital sex, it’s no wonder directors can’t resist, for example, populating the stage with blow-up sex toys, as in the Young Vic’s 2015 production. For me, it has always layered extra discomfort on an uncomfortable play, adding a sheen of grimy sexuality that simultaneously undercuts and reinforces the play’s moralistic view of sex.
Blanche McIntyre’s production takes a step back from judgment, finding a vein of humour and humanity that complicates this already complex play in unexpected and refreshing ways. James Cotterill’s costumes place us in the 1970s, with a cheeky opening ‘power outage’ taking away what seems for a moment to be a show that will be daringly lit by an electric chandelier. The comic scenes with an incompetent policeman (you know the type) and a dryly clever pimp are allowed to be light and slapstick, and McIntyre deftly avoids the directorial Shakespeare trap of thinking a Serious Play about Serious Issues can only permit laughter in carefully quarantined moments of regulated levity—a fair bit of this supposed comedy is, in fact, rather funny when allowed to be.
McIntyre’s other immediately notable choice is the casting of the Duke of Vienna, who inexplicably cedes power to Angelo at the beginning of the play in order to—well, it’s unclear what he’s claiming to do, what he actually does is re-enter the play in disguise as a friar in order to keep an eye on the goings-on. Or rather, she does, played here as a woman by a posh and tremulous Hattie Ladbury, who enters alone at the beginning of the play and stares out at the audience in a paroxysm of stage fright, speechless. For the rest of the play, the Duke’s frequent language about disliking the gaze of the people, wishing to avoid being seen, rings differently. Ladbury gives a strong and captivating performance as a weak leader, careening uncertainly from idea to idea in her desperation to get things right, to be a good ruler, to avoid having to pause and look critically at herself.
This frantic avoidance of self-analysis is mirrored in Ashley Zhangazha’s nebbish and bespectacled Angelo, a prim bureaucrat whose scrupulous moral correctness is what seems, initially, to allow him to pursue a draconian enforcement of the morality laws that the Duke has let slip. Until, of course, he meets the bright and beautiful Isabella (Georgia Landers), who comes to plead for her brother, who has been sentenced to death for fornication. Zhangazha’s Angelo is startled and flustered by his attraction to her, and when he makes his famous indecent proposal—I’ll spare your brother if you sleep with me—he seems not like a man undone by lust, but like an awkward and repressed young man who has denied his desires for so long, he no longer has any idea how to pursue them. He has done the cost-benefit analysis: doesn’t this make the most sense for everyone involved?
In McIntyre’s staging, Angelo’s crime is not to experience sexual desire, and in some ways isn’t even to attempt to act on it in a wildly inappropriate manner—it’s when he loses his temper at Isabella’s threat to expose him. It’s this fear of his actions being revealed that prompts him to attempt to lay hands on her, and provokes his unravelling into more and more outrageous actions: doubling down on the bargain, then going back on his word later. When we check in with Angelo near the end of the play, he seems stunned by where his fear has taken him.
This journey is paralleled by the Duke, whose actions throughout the play are, frankly, even more inexplicable. She argues repeatedly with the slimy courtier Lucio, whose maybe-baseless insinuations about the Duke’s own supposed sexual activities (delivered, though he does not know it, to the Duke herself, in disguise) become explicitly homophobic insinuations, and Ladbury’s frantic response hints at where the famously ambiguous ending might be pointing.
When Isabella pleads with Angelo, she reminds him that people with power have to be held to different standards than ordinary people. They are able to do more, so they must be more circumspect and merciful. Despite its immense sympathy for both the Duke and Angelo, McIntyre does not try to excuse them. They are not bad or evil people, and presenting them as a queer woman and a Black man respectively implies the lengths to which they will need to have gone to achieve and maintain power, the reasons their desires have had to be so ruthlessly quashed. Their repression is not the problem, nor is their awkward inability to express their desires when they bubble up. It is the tyranny of their attempts to regain control, their inability to see Isabella as anything but an object upon which to enact their desires—for sex, yes, but also an equally deep need to be seen as a good person. It is their failure to recognise that they have too much power to use it so carelessly and aimlessly.
It’s a failing of the play itself, not McIntyre or Landers, that Isabella rarely gets the chance to rise above that objectification. But McIntyre and the company seek humanity in other places, and though of course there is an inevitable gag with a dildo (I don’t expect any director to be that strong), they find more nuanced meaning than play’s usual titillating yet moralistic warnings about the hidden danger lurking within powerful white men—a timeless message that warrants repeating, of course. But Measure for Measure doesn’t lack for productions these days, so it’s a pleasure to see it mean something new.
Measure for Measure is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until 15th January. More info and tickets here.