Theatre / Feature

All you need to know about Measure for Measure

Shakespeare’s iconic problem play transfers to London this November.

Written in approximately 1603, Measure for Measure is one of William Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”. Unlike most of his great works, the play defies categorisation, and its themes include justice, morality and the contrast between corruption and purity.

At its heart, Measure for Measure is a comedy, albeit a dark one; it’s not a tragedy (unlike in, say, Hamlet, most of the major players are still alive at the end) – but the ambiguous ending defies expectations of the Bard’s more obvious farces such as As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing or The Merry Wives of Windsor.

What is Measure for Measure about?

When the Duke of Vienna takes an unplanned leave of absence, his deputy, Angelo is left in charge of the city. Rife with brothels and loose morality, Angelo – a pious and religious man – begins making changes, at first reviving old laws and threatening to demolish the city’s brothels. Unbeknownst to Angelo, the Duke remains in the city, disguised as a friar to keep an eye on what happens.

When, under Angelo’s new law, Claudio is sentenced to death for fornication with a woman he intends to marry, Claudio implores his friend Lucio to seek out his sister Isabella, a novice nun, whom he hopes can persuade Angelo to release him.

Upon appealing to him, an offer is made to Isabella to spare Claudio’s life – if she agrees to give her virginity to Angelo.

It is left to the Duke, disguised as a friar, to resolve the situation, relying on his loyal servants to usurp Angelo, Isabella’s faith, and a ragtag group of Viennese prostitutes and customers to put an end to Angelo’s tyranny.

Who stars in Measure for Measure?

Following an acclaimed run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, the full RSC cast will bring this thrilling show to the Barbican Theatre this November.

The cast includes Antony Byrne as the Duke, James Cooney as Claudio, Sandy Grierson as Angelo, Lucy Phelps as Isabella, Joseph Arkley as Lucio and David Ajao as Pompey.

What can audiences expect from Measure for Measure?

Reimagined in 1900s Vienna, Artistic Director Gregory Doran offers audiences a feast for the eyes in this new production. Characters like Lucio and Pompey – customers of Mistress Overdone’s whorehouse – are envisaged as jazz age fops who wouldn’t look out of place in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel, and the effect is sublime.

Limited props and scenery keep the production feeling suitably bardic, but the panoramic digital screen which provides backdrops for scenes in courthouses, prison cells and on the streets of the vibrant city of Vienna add clarity and depth to Shakespeare’s words.

Measure for Measure’s greatest strength comes from its myriad plots, which are expertly woven together so that while they feel distinct are in fact working together to shine a light on the separate themes being picked up by the narrative.

There’s Isabella’s purity and revulsion at Angelo’s request; the “bed trick” invoked by the Friar in order to save her from this fate; Lucio’s ribald mockery of the Duke to the Friar, and vice versa, unbeknownst they are the same person; a brilliant drag turn from Graeme Brooks as Mistress Overdone as her livelihood is destroyed; and Pompey’s fall from grace, from benefactor to disgraced prisoner.

All these moments work together in surprisingly accessible ways so that by the end of the play there’s a multi-layered cacophony of mistaken identities, devious plotting, broken promises and hearts that a resolved in the final reveal: as the friar is unmasked as the Duke.

What are the critics saying?

★★★★ “This fresh, insightful version of a morally murky play finds the RSC on flying form” – Mail On Sunday

★★★★ “Gregory Doran’s lucid compelling production… he has a way of making classical theatre excitingly simple and vivid… a luminous clarity.” – The Times

★★★★ “Excellent… a rolling mass of desire, repression and duplicity” – Financial Times

★★★★ “Gregory Doran’s assured production offers a perfectly judged portrait of public hypocrisy and seething sexuality” – The Guardian

What else do I need to know?

Measure for Measure runs for approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, including a 20-minute interval.

It arrives at the Barbican Theatre from 12 November 2019 – 16 January 2020. Get your tickets at Ticketmaster.co.uk

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