“I have a motion much imports your good”
They say things come in threes and as with Oresteias, so too with Measure for Measures. After Cheek by Jowl’s brutally contemporary Russian interpretation and Dominic Dromgoole’s comic version for the Globe, it is now Joe Hill-Gibbins’ turn to put his inimitable stamp on the play for the Young Vic. And from the industrial techno rave that opens the show to the awkward freeze-frame of the Duke’s happy ending – all done in a smidge under two hours – this is very much a modern take on Shakespeare that is bound to ruffle certain feathers whilst stimulating others.
With the licentiousness of Viennese society being represented by scores of inflatable sex toy dolls, the image of which recur throughout this whole production, and the Duke using live video relays to speak to the city, the modern-day feel is overt but non-specific, the point being we could be in any major city where a conservative regime is free to impose its puritanical fervour. And in this mise-en-scène, curated by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen and artfully framed in Miriam Buether’s box-frame set with hidden rear compartment, the story unfolds.
Given the abbreviated running time, this is definitely Measure redux and so sometimes the clarity of the storytelling isn’t always there, especially in the subplots. The excellent Paul Ready’s ruling deputy Angelo is thrown a major curveball when his strictness is challenged by novice Isabella, a resplendent Romola Garai, the sexuality she awakens in him obvious from his inability to even stand up straight in the same room as her. He’s sentenced her brother to death, she’s pleaded for mercy but he’ll only concede if she surrenders her chastity to him, the blow-up dolls clearly not doing enough.
Watching from the sidelines is Zubin Varla’s Duke, who left Angelo in charge and has also been captivated by Isabella. Varla makes him quite the energetic but enigmatic figure, in keeping with the non-committal production at large and whilst this does leave a lot of room for audiences to make up their own mind about this version of this ‘problem play’, it can at times feel a little ephemeral. Key relationships don’t resonate quite as strongly as they should (Isabella and her brother for example) and some scenes can feel hurried (for me, the final scene needed more haste less speed).
But there’s huge amounts to enjoy too, from this most inventive of directors. The use of video (Chris Kondek) is inspired, especially when soliloquising, James Farncombe’s lighting has an extraordinary conjuring effect and Hill-Gibbins’ eye for arresting details is spot-on – the imagery of Isabella’s isolated worship becomes a thing of beauty, Mariana’s abandoned prostrate body explodes into life in a most arresting manner, Sarah Malin’s gender-swapped Escalus is a small but significant point, even a beheaded head in a bag – the downfall of many a director – gets an irreverently funny touch.
Entertaining and exhilarating, it is so refreshing to see a director be allowed to take such liberties with Shakespeare, even to the point it doesn’t necessarily always work. It may not be the most precisely spoken, or textually faithful, but to focus on such points is to mistake the directorial vision here, one which fully embraces the play’s complicated nature. Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe serve audiences plenty of more traditional fare but head to The Cut for something altogether stranger and tastier.