A dramatic countdown on stage to the time of a criminals execution, moments of well-executed humour and a subplot between a politician and a nun that resonates with today’s MeToo movement; the RSC’s production of Measure for Measure is a huge success.
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which I would describe as a drama-comedy, centres around the fate of Claudio, a young man who has been sentenced to death for impregnating his lover out of wedlock and his sister Isabella who desperately tries to save him. He has been sentenced by Angelo, the new temporary leader of Vienna who has vowed to rid the city of its sexual deviants and rampant debauchery. Staged to look like the characters have been taken out of Victorian London, the RSC’s production is very well executed and made for very entertaining and thought-provoking viewing.
Staging Shakespeare in a way that makes it compelling and interesting for modern theatre-goers is a tricky task, especially with his comedies. Shakespearean humour is not exactly what we would all deem as laugh out loud material today. But it was exactly this that this production did so well that has lead me to review and praise it so highly. The characters have to seem ordinary, not figures spouting lines of verse from a play written hundreds of years ago, but people whose stories we are interested in. This play does this excellently and with ease.
Backstage and behind the scenes, there has clearly been creative thought applied to the play as a piece of 17th-century literature in order to make sure what audiences see on stage is a tale we can all enjoy and interpret properly. As well as this, praise must absolutely be given to the actors. What a good Shakespearean actor must be able to do, in my opinion, is deliver their lines, as well as they can, in a way that makes it sound like they’re speaking in normal, modern everyday speech. This is definitely true of this production, with special recognition to Joseph Arkley (who played Lucio) who was responsible for the plays most convincing comic lines and Lucy Phelps (Isabella) who delivered the plays most emotive and poignant dramatic lines.
It was, in fact, Lucy Phelps who, in my view, carried the weight of the play on her clearly very able and talented actor shoulders. Performing her lines with the confidence and emotion that if some of her co-stars did so as brilliantly as her, the play would be faultless.
What was particularly inspiring was her performance in a scene in the play that was, intentionally, difficult to watch. There stood Angelo suited and dominantly standing centre stage offering an angelically white dressed Isabella the opportunity to rid her brother of his chargers in exchange for sex. The audience then had to watch as Angelo groped and touched Isabella from behind, using his position of power to control and use a young woman. Whether added to the play deliberately or not, though I think it must have been intentional, this moment in the show stood out as powerful acknowledgement to the MeToo movement that saw real-life women targeted and manipulated by men in power. This just goes to show that Shakespeare’s works are not exclusive to literary intellectuals or would make for uninteresting viewing, two common misconceptions about his work that I couldn’t disagree with more.
I left the theatre completely satisfied and very happy that my first experience of Measure for Measure came in the form of a well-executed on stage performance rather than reading it, which should always be everyone’s way of approaching Shakespeare in my opinion. Overall, unsurprisingly the RSC did not disappoint and continues to provide the public with top standard productions of Shakespeare’s timeless plays.