5th September 1974, Irving Wardle
fashionable since the end of the war, “Measure for Measure” has undergone a
total reversal of meaning from a parable on divine justice to a fable of social
oppression. It is clearly central to the prevailing moral climate, but, with the
exception of Howard Brenton’s rewritten version, no production I have seen has
brought it into true focus, least of all this extravagantly Germanic treatment
by Keith Hack.
interpretation of the play hinges on the enigmatic figure of the Duke, whose
role consists of a string of unanswered questions. Unsurprisingly, Mr Hack
presents him as a morally discredited fraud wearing the mask of justice. The
structure of the production, in fact, is to show the forces of law and order and
the underworld victims as two sides of the same coin. Dan Meaden’s drag
Mistress Overdone doubles as a portly nun; the disguised Duke fondles Isabella
while planning her rescue from Angelo.
only positive characters are the straight victims Juliet and Claudio, who
finally rejects his hysterically virtuous sister with a stony glare. All of
which fits in with the idea that none are more sexually obsessed that the
enemies of permissiveness.
far, the production makes sense. Where it breaks down is in fitting the
characters into the superstructure; and rarely on the British stage have I seen
so many externally imposed performances. Barrie Ingram’s Duke, sawing the air
with conjurer’s gestures, is a transparent mountebank from his furtive opening
scene to his final gilded descent on a platform helpfully described “Deus Ex
Machina”. Barry Stanton rigged up in tattered finery as Lucio, minces daintily
through the action underling double meanings in squealing falsetto; I have never
seen a less plausible performance from this fine actor.
when we come to the underworld proper it offers nothing but artificial
grotesques: James Booth’s Irish Pompey sporting a padded rump, a professional
Abhorson, a Barnardine whose voice is relayed from his cell over loud-speakers;
even the gentlemanly Provost is a black actor stripped to the waist.
these are effect-seeking departures from stereotypes; doing nothing to
illuminate the play’s meaning. Mr Hack has also transported the action from
Vienna to Brecht’s city of Mahagonny, complete with a Weill-like score of
hurry-music and tawdry nightclub numbers by Stephen Oliver, and a composite set
(by Maria Bjornson) incorporating monastic and prison interiors and a gallery
where all the inmates of the city congregate to greet public announcements with
ironic fusillades of motor horns and football rattles.
the production does succeed is in passages in which the actors take over. At
first sight Michael Pennington’s virile and supercilious Angelo promises
another empty reversal of stage tradition. But the performance takes off
magnificently in the temptation scene with Francesca Annis’s Isabella. At the
climax he drops to his knees, caught between supplication, threat and trembling
lust; to which she responds with paralysed horror (later repeated in the
parallel scene with Claudio) as if in the embrace of a venomous snake. I have
never seen this scene more thrillingly played.