'Measure for Measure' or 'I think we need a different measuring stick.'

Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare
8th October 2015, Young Vic Theatre

I’ve seen enough earnest takes on ‘Measure for Measure’ to last a lifetime and they still never make sense of one of Shakespeare’s trickiest and most perverse plays. Joe Hill-Gibbins’ show also comes up short and by the end of his production barely a single component – the characters, tone or themes – quite hold up but it’s still one hell of a trip. This is a show dripping in cynicism, sex and brutal religious imagery, pulsing with a kind of manic energy that’ll make you want to scream or vomit and filled with a few crystal scenes that really make Shakespeare’s language sing.

A quick summary of the barmy plot: we are in Vienna where Duke Vincentio  – disgusted that his city has sunken into sinful ways – has decided to leave Vienna and bestow rule to the pious Angelo, whom the Duke hopes will clamp down on his lapsed citizens with righteous vigour. Meanwhile, the Duke, dressed as a Friar, plans to observe sneakily from the side lines. Angelo begins his ‘Christianly’ cleansing with gusto and no sinners are spared. When Claudio is sentenced to death for impregnating his lover Julietta his sister, a nun called Isabella, pleas to the Duke for her brother’s life. The Duke, struck down with desire for this noble soul, offers Claudio’s life in exchange for Isabella’s body. Much chaos, scheming and a little gentle execution follows. As I said: crackers.

It’s the perfect Shakespeare play for director Joe Hill-Gibbins who has a vicious sense of a humour and revels in the chaos that complicated plays create. Joe Hill-Gibbins goes to town on this one. Vienna has been transformed into a contemporary city that feels a lot like Amsterdam; not the pretty-canals Amsterdam but the dingy, red light district side that’s bursting at the seams with semen and prostitutes. When the play opens the stage resembles a ball-pond, only the pond has been filled with blow up sex dolls. The citizens writhe around in this sexy sea, whilst the Duke (Zubin Varla) announces his cunning/kind plan. Lots of productions cast the Duke as the saint and Angelo the villain but in this show Varla’s Duke is one sadistic bastard. When he resolves to ‘save’ his city, there’s an evil glint in his eye and a sneer in his speech. Later, as the Duke – now dressed as a Friar – spies on his citizens, he carries a camera with him at all times. The light this Duke provides is not saintly, it is the light of celebrity; he has essentially created the first Big Brother show for his own private amusement and everyone around him is entranced and enslaved by the concept.

Paul Ready’s Angelo has the kind of pale skin and soft, slippery face that makes you want to both slap and comfort him. Ready’s interpretation of Angelo is amazingly complex but it works, mainly because Ready is one of the best Shakespearean actors we’ve got. He carves out every word with such care and finds brilliant and unique rhythms in his speeches, which allow him to create a character riddled with contradiction yet still completely believable and human. Ready’s Angelo is a coward. Ready’s Angelo is a villain. Ready’s Angelo is absurd yet horribly real. He is a man who does not understand sex and so is terrified by it. It looks like his skin is recoiling from his body – it really does – as if there’s simply a billowing space inside him where the soul ought to be.

Joe Hill-Gibbins revels in the play’s crazy contradictions and mines them for moments of cruel and spicy comedy. When Angelo proposes his new and stringent rule all the sex-toys are chucked into a back-stage area, which will later double up as a prison. He is left alone on a bare stage. It’s a bareness that seems to laugh in the face of Angelo’s rule; look where his extreme views have left him, he is now a governor with precisely no one left to govern! These contradictions flicker wildly throughout Gibbins’ production and often involve video footage of those (amazingly graphic) sex dolls. There are many times when Angelo offers a pompous speech only for a giant plastic dick (filmed from back stage and now projected onto a huge screen centre stage) to loom up behind him. It is such clever comedy, too, as the audience blushes and giggles at this world of pimps, sex tapes and sex toys. Every time we laugh at one of those sex dolls – and we laugh a lot – we’re siding with the ‘other’ team. We’re on the side of sex and liberation and mess and sin and laughter.

It’s quite a world, then, for a nun to find herself and Romola Garai’s Isabella looks wildly out of place. In all honesty, she doesn’t quite fit in the world of this production but the force of Garai’s performance just about jams her into place. No doubt Isabella is meant to be out place – of course she’s meant to be out place, that’s the whole bleedin conundrum – but she’s still meant to be of this Vienna, and I’m not convinced she is. But Garai is one heck of a force on stage and it is an honour, properly an honour, to watch her blast through this production. The encounters between Isabella and Angelo are electric and their conversation tingles with complexity, irony, honesty and fresh insight. Every observation from Shakespeare – be it that virtue is more tempting and cunning than vice or that the body is nothing compared to the soul – feels vital, mind-blowing, new.

There are a number of speeches that make an incredible impact. There’s such a frenetic energy to Hill-Gibbins’ shows that sometimes the language gets a little left behind but he’s careful to halt the mania at the right moments and allow the monologues to own the stage. There is a splendid scene late on when the Duke – still lounging about in that Friar’s costume – comforts the imprisoned Claudio and speaks to him of the vagaries of life, the mystifying sorrows and lucky but fleeting joys of existence, and the comforting calm that awaits him in death. It is one of those magical moments when it feels like Shakespeare is speaking to you, and only you.

Entrancing and mad and deeply provoking then but – as the pace picks up and the garish mania of this production spirals out of control – something slips out of place. All that liberated chaos, all those bold clashes and fancy video work and knotty characters and defiant head-fuck moments start to work against the production. The pace builds and builds and a great alarm sounds every time the prison door, which separates the seedy backstage stage world and ‘clean’ front stage world - slams shut. It feels like we are being pounded and that some desperate conclusion is about to be reached but what, what is that conclusion? Where are we headed? The characters spend more and more time backstage, a space that has come to represent all the sin these characters have now touched or at least been touched by. A lot of the acting – as the characters are shut off-stage – appears on camera. We begin to lose sight of them and we begin to lose our connection.

And then that final, mental ‘reconciliation’ scene happens and all the characters seem to crack. Isabella, who has seemed amazingly forceful but also rather ridiculous set within this deeply compromised environment – suddenly drops down on her knees and pleas for Angelo’s life. It feels like a moment that cannot be laughed at but that also feels wildly out of sorts with the show. What are we meant to make of this pure and straight-faced moment? The Duke runs wildly about, forcing the oddest couples together, as he manically tries to tie up loose ends. He much rolls his eyes at us and we laugh at his desperate and absurd attempt at harmony. But this Duke has been a deeply malevolent force throughout the play and it feels a shame to drop all that malice so late on. Who have we got left to hate? Who have we got left to love? Just what is there left to hold onto?