Properly delivered, Claudio's "But to die..." speech in Measure For Measure can be immensely moving, as the helpless prisoner finds himself ready to plead with his sister Isabella to trade her chastity for his life. I doubt, though, that either actor Simon Cox or director Mick Gordon expected the response which greeted the speech on the second night at Warwick Arts Centre of English Touring Theatre's production; Cox had reached the point of contemplating the soul's possible residence "In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice" when a punter in the second row suffered an altogether too visceral reaction, all over the carpet.
The production clearly does not merit such an emetic reception; in fact, in itself it does not really elicit much response at all, one way or the other. Conor Murphy's design is all bars, cages and gantries, rather overdoing the prison motif – even the Viennese officials' gowns are covered in similarly geometrical piping, suggesting their confinement by their offices. The stage is otherwise bare, with location largely established by snatches of sound: tottering high heels for Mistress Overdone's stews, for example, or devotional chanting for Isabella's nunnery.
Gordon's direction is of the big-picture variety rather than concentrating on detail, which often leaves the actors to pick their own paths of sense through the lines; several phrases which make sense on the page but can be rendered semi-intelligible in speech are skimmed over lightly in the hope that no-one will notice. Sometimes Gordon goes for image at the expense of logic: when the disguised Duke asks to be concealed so as to eavesdrop on Claudio and Isabella's exchange, he is ushered all of two inches into a spotlight directly behind the pair; later he and Isabella conduct a supposedly secret conversation directly across the mournful Mariana.
Michael Higgs as Angelo, awakened to sensuality by the sight of Isabella, allows himself two impassioned instants in the play – two more than Michael Hadley's Duke, who never becomes more than a plot engine. Kevin Dignam shows the odd interesting flash as Lucio, when his patrician drawl drops into parvenu gorblimey, but never builds on those hints. Catherine Cusack has the exact measure of Isabella's distraught innocence (at one point she even affects a rather disarming Joyce Grenfellesque gawky walk), but although perfectly consistent and natural, her performance is strangely un-compelling. Gordon cuts the final couplet, ending in blackout before we can see Isabella's response to the Duke's unheralded proposal of marriage, in what is either a clever acknowledgement of a contemporary audience's difficulty with that moment or a bare-faced cop-out. In short, we see an aerial photograph of the plot, with its major landmarks clearly visible but the routes between them not always discernible.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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