Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 15 February, 2006

When Simon McBurney’s NT/Complicité co-production was first seen in the Olivier’s 2004 Travelex £10 season, Alastair Macaulay on this page was in the minority in expressing reservations about it. Now, on its revival in the Lyttelton’s proscenium-arch space, I belatedly come round to his point of view.

McBurney has graphically located Shakespeare’s problem play in a world tantalisingly close to our own, in which justice and due process of law can become the mere playthings of virtually any flavour of regime. On the one hand, we see the too-dogmatic Angelo, under whose puritanical vice-regency the unhappy Claudio is sentenced to death merely for extramarital sex, and who in turn uses his spotless reputation to conceal his sudden corruption when fired to offer Claudio’s life to his postulant-nun sister Isabella in return for her sexual favours. On the other, the rightful Duke shows a blithe disregard for both his own laws and his various subjects’ feelings as, disguised as a monk, he sets about exposing Angelo’s wickedness. This is a stark staging where space is defined by white lighting. The plot emerges with clarity, comprehensibility and a heavy momentum of its own in this evening of two and a quarter hours without interval.

But not, I find this time, with much compulsion. Too often I could step back from the narrative and simply consider the staged images in themselves... at which points they became indistinguishable from a host of other “adventurous” director’s-theatre shows on the international circuit. Only two years on, and dressing prisoners in orange jumpsuits seems trite and hackneyed where once it was incisive; the use of video cameras has been toned down to the point where it, too, looks merely modish.

Perversely, I slightly prefer Angus Wright’s Angelo to that of Paul Rhys in 2004: Wright begins more plausibly as a desiccated apparatchik, and so also shies away from excesses of passion when his sensual race is given the rein. Naomi Frederick’s Isabella remains fervent but unmoving. But it is the presence of McBurney himself, replacing David Troughton as the Duke, which may be most problematic: he now personifies Complicite to such an extent that it’s like having a TV station logo permanently displayed in a corner of the screen. He hardly ever betrays Shakespeare’s writing, but simply by being there he signals that the company brand dominates that of the playwright.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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