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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Measure For Measure
Almeida Theatre Spring 2010

Measure For Measure is one of what scholars call Shakespeare's Problem Plays, the problem being that we don't know what to do with them.

The characters are all morally ambiguous, making it difficult to sympathise with anyone; the plot repeatedly turns on unlikely and questionable devices; the ending leaves too many questions unanswered; and Shakespeare's signature mix of low comedy and high drama clashes particularly gratingly.

The problem, therefore, belongs to directors and actors. Many Shakespeare plays play themselves - if you just say the words and don't bump into the furniture, something at least adequate will result. But with Measure For Measure, interpretative decisions must be made and adhered to.

And it is much to the credit of director Michael Attenborough and his cast that, if they haven't triumphed over all the play's difficulties, they have made bold and imaginative decisions that go far toward making it work.

A condensed version of a particularly convoluted plot: a Duke who has not been enforcing the laws feigns a foreign trip and appoints a hanging judge as his deputy. One of the new ruler's first acts is to condemn a man for fornication, but when the offender's nun-to-be sister pleads for him, a rush of lust leads the deputy to offer to trade the brother's life for the sister's virtue. But the Duke, disguised as a monk, has been hovering about and watching, and he has counterplots of his own.

Each of the central characters poses problems, and each of the actors has found fresh ways of addressing them. Rory Kinnear introduces the deputy Angelo as a junior clerk somewhat startled to find himself advanced to high office. His bemused, bumbling, even comic quality endears him to us, and his sudden desire for Isabella plays less like hypocrisy than as one more in a string of out-of-his-depth shocks.

With her baby face, startlingly slim body and figure-hiding gown, Anna Maxwell Martin sometimes looks like an eleven-year-old girl, and she invests Isabella not only with a touching unworldliness but with a child's black-and-white morality, so that she also comes across as out of her depth, rather than hard-edged or prudish.

In some ways Ben Miles has the greatest difficulty making both sense and moral acceptability out of the Duke who toys Godlike with the fates and emotions of others. He addresses the question of the Duke's motives by bypassing it, playing him as a man without a master plan, making it up as he goes along and therefore a little more forgivable when he missteps.

As I said, these decisions don't solve all the play's problems - for example, director Attenborough side-steps the ambiguities of the final moments by leaving them unresolved, the characters not quite sure whether a happy ending has happened or not - but they smooth out some of the rough edges and soften the characters, helping the play flow past its trouble points.

Those who know the play will find much to admire and respect in the directorial and acting choices, while those new to it will have little difficulty being drawn into the story and characters.

As is usually the case, modern dress neither adds nor detracts much, except for the anomaly of Isabella being dressed more like a nineteenth-century postulant than a contemporary nun.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Measure For Measure - Almeida 2010