Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 27 May, 2004

Simon McBurney of Complicité has long had a reputation as one of the most inventive theatre directors in Britain. But heís never really become known outside the theatre world, except as the choirmaster in The Vicar Of Dibley.  The National Theatre, meanwhile, is on a roll: since Nicholas Hytner took the helm, itís all just kept going right.  A collaboration between the two always promised to be special. And boy, it is.

McBurney has chosen to direct one of the most problematic of Shakespeareís plays. Measure For Measure is called a comedy, but only because it has a sort-of happy ending. Itís festooned with shadows.  Novice nun Isabella pleads for the life of her brother, condemned for adultery. Judge Angelo says, with black hypocrisy, that heíll do it if she sleeps with him.  Meanwhile, the Duke is secretly keeping tabs on it all in his own strange way.

The play is a maze of sexual morality and duplicity that can only be navigated with extreme care, otherwise you end up getting its ideas even more entangled.  McBurney plays on the public dimension Ė itís about how the city is ruled Ė by using video cameras to create the ďmedia eyeĒ, especially watching Angeloís face.  Itís the sort of thing that could easily look faddish, but is handled with clever precision and pays off beautifully.

The stage is lit in harsh monochrome by Paul Anderson, who makes the finest sudden switches of lighting (like jump-cuts in film) Iíve ever seen in theatre.  Thereís a cinematic or televisual feel in general, specifically of that kind of not-quite-sci-fi that takes place in a disturbing, unfeeling near future.  Images tumble one on top of another, more miraculous because only minimal set and props are used. Suggestion is all.

Naomi Frederick is rather overwrought as Isabella, tending to shrillness, and David Troughtonís Duke is like two quite different people in and out of disguise.   But Paul Rhys is a triumph as Angelo.  Toby Jones and Richard Katz are foremost among a magnificently tight ensemble.  At two and a quarter hours without an interval, itís not easy or pleasant watching. But itís one of the finest Shakespeares Iíve seen for some time.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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