Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 23 November, 2011
Never again shall I feel I have missed out in life by not visiting the fetish club Torture Garden. In Roxana Silbert's RSC Measure For Measure, all of Vienna is a dungeon, in the penile rather than the penal sense. The stage is well hung with curtains of rope, or whiplashes, or lengths of rubber hose... kinky, anyway; supernumeraries stand in corners wearing on their heads what appear to be spiked lampshades (Philippe Starck gimp masks, perhaps?); Lucio breaks off his first line to remove his nipple clamps; even the Duke wears a black leather corset (evoking memories of Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army protesting, "It's a gentleman's abdominal support!"). It makes the RSC's recent Marat/Sade look like a Ray Cooney farce.
Garance Marneur's design strikes that characteristically English note that combines prurience and decorum, a desire to look shocking but not actually to shock. I hope this is intentional, meant to suggest a connection between this fictional Vienna and our own contradictions of puritanism and negligence in sexual law. For when Angelo, the Duke's deputy, offers to remit the death sentence upon Isabella's brother Claudio (for getting his fiancée with child) in return for her sexual favours, he displays precisely the kind of sexual hypocrisy which informs so much of our culture.
Jamie Ballard's Angelo is bewildered and shocked by his sudden desire for Isabella; his schemes gather a momentum of their own rather than resulting from a deliberate change of moral tack. As the novice nun Isabella, Jodie McNee is impassioned (and Liverpudlian) but lacks much of either the religious or sexual magnetism required; Mark Quartley as her brother is more powerfully fervent when he pleads with her to grant him his life. Paul Chahidi brings his fine comic abilities to bear as the raffish Lucio, but adds a vein of genuine solicitude for Isabella. Raymond Coulthard does a number of minor conjuring tricks as the Duke, underlining the sleight-of-reasoning that fuels both that character's plans to resolve matters and Shakespeare's script itself.
But I remain unconvinced how many of these impressions and allusions are deliberate; the suspicion lingers that the production may simply be modish, and finds itself unintentionally more eloquent than it deserves. This is a show that may not know its own safeword.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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