Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Summer 2003.

Richard Wood
Sheffield Hallam University

Wood, Richard. "Review of Measure for Measure." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 15. 1-5 <URL:>.

Directed by Sean Holmes. With Paul Higgins (Duke Vincentio), Emma Fielding (Isabella), Daniel Evans (Angelo), Lisa Stevenson (Mariana), Fergus O'Donnell (Claudio), John Lloyd Fillingham (Lucio), Simon Trinder (Pompey), Ishia Bennison (Mistress Overdone), Bill Nash (Barnardine).

  1. This Royal Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure, directed by Sean Holmes, is set in the 1940s Vienna familiar from the film The Third Man. From the outset the stage is variously peopled with prostitutes, pimps and black-marketeers, and the same uncompromising brick wall dominates all the sets. Initially this atmosphere of moral cynicism seems to promise a resolution to the time-honoured difficulties associated with producing Shakespeare's problem play. However, as the action proceeds more questions are raised than are answered. After the Duke, apparently departing the city by train, hands over the reigns of power to Angelo, the latter's strict enforcement of the law against sex before marriage appears very much at odds with the Vienna of Harry Lime. Indeed, despite several excellent performances, not least Daniel Evans' portrayal of Angelo as a minor bureaucrat promoted beyond his ability, the production as a whole fails to carry the weight of such anachronisms.

  2. Nevertheless, the quality of the acting does enliven and positively illuminate particular scenes. The most effective performance in this regard is Emma Fielding's Isabella. Seemingly borrowing a motif used by Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List, Isabella appears on the gloomily lit stage among the otherwise drably dressed cast in a striking red coat. Fielding stands out in other ways. She speaks her lines with a rhythm and conviction that mark her out as the last repository of moral certainty in this world of political corruption. The Act Two exchanges between Isabella and Angelo represent a problematically early peak among the production's highlights. As Fielding's Isabella argues for her brother's life, her command of difficult language is persuasive. Evans' Angelo does not appear to struggle with tightly held moral principles before succumbing to his lust, but his transformation from a petty administrator with a fascist air to a sexual predator is expertly handled.

  3. Other highlights are provided by Lucio and Pompey. The latter is a natural spiv, offering a rare dash of colour (both visual and aural) beyond Isabella's coat. Employing an accent originating near, if not actually on, the banks of the Mersey, Simon Trinder (as Pompey) easily outshines his employer (Ishia Bennison's rather monotone Mistress Overdone) and comes close to surpassing Lucio in the audience's affections. Still, John Lloyd Fillingham's Lucio provides the production with its comedic heart. Fillingham's style approaches that of the comedian Harry Hill, and although he manages to brighten the darkest corners of a bleak Vienna, his arguably unjust end seems nothing more than a comic pratfall.

  4. Ultimately, this production's biggest conundrum (as is often the case in productions of Measure for Measure) is the relationship between Duke Vincentio and Isabella. Here, the conception of the Duke as the arch-cynic in a world of cynics (Isabella excepted) has the potential to resolve the problem of their betrothal and Isabella's silent accession. This potential is never fulfilled. The Duke's initial retreat from power does have an unavoidably cynical element, and the 1940s setting emphasises that aspect of the play's morality. In addition, Paul Higgins' Duke is merely a more authoritative, though less starchy, version of Angelo. This Duke has enough confidence in his power and status to dispense the justice of the final act barefoot and jacket-less. His skill as a practised manipulator is clearly evident when he makes thinly veiled sexual advances to Isabella while still disguised as a friar. This much is consistent. However, Isabella's moral certainty never falters, and without her conversion to cynicism the production remains a disjointed procession punctuated by lively set pieces. Nevertheless, there is little to fault in Paul Higgins' performance as the Duke, although his use of a variable Scottish accent when he is disguised as a friar is occasionally distracting.

  5. Almost in tacit recognition of the production's lack of consistency, there are several scenes that seem to be constructed entirely out of the need to entertain. The repeated appearance of an almost entirely naked Barnadine (Bill Nash) and the elaborate guillotine scene achieve much audience reaction, but do not add to the sense of the play. Indeed, the lasting impression left by this Measure for Measure is of some fine entertainment provided by first rate actors working with a flawed concept.

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