There’s a mountain of inflatable sex dolls on the stage. Shiny, blank faces with gaping, toothless mouths, spherical tits and gargantuan cocks everywhere. The pile is so big that the actors have to wade through the dolls, a metaphor for the seedy Viennese streets where Shakespeare sets his Measure for Measure. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins wrenches this world into the present with a symbolism-laden, visually orgasmic production designed by Miriam Buether, and a great performance by Romola Garai as Isabella. Live video feeds, projection and pulsing beats marry a space that has ghosts of Elizabethan theatre structures, but some choices don’t sit well. Though the visuals are relevant and bold, there’s a disappointing tendency towards shouting, and a dubious (to the point of discomfort) characterization choice for infamous pimp Pompey. As the characters physically and emotionally wrestle through the heavily edited, relentless two hours of sex and religion, there is still a strong feeling that this production values style over substance.
Most modernized Shakespeare I see tacks on a more contemporary setting through costuming whilst changing little else. These sorts of adaptations tend to not generate any new insight on the play, its story or characters. This production manages to escape that trap through fully integrated design that cleverly functions on both a practical and representational level. The sex dolls, the most jarring of the updates, are in turn Angelo’s repressed sexuality, the sinners that Isabella (a novice nun) rejects, prisoners, and the duke’s citizens. The live feed is the media and public perception (as it was in the Old Vic’s 2005 Richard II), the duke’s altered perspective of events, and creates clear boundaries between locations. It’s also very Big Brother, and the audience is the all-seeing, both on and off camera. These design elements are grotesquely amplified, with every pore visible as faces are broadcast and projected at a massive size, and the dolls, well, they’re everywhere and thrown around like a cheap commodity to be used and discarded.
The dolls eventually move to a back room, akin to an Elizabethan inner stage, that’s often sealed off by sterile sliding panels, but we are regularly reminded of their presence both on and off camera. The live feed doesn’t let the audience forget about the bad behaviour happening in the concealed prison where Angelo’s offenders await execution. Some of the characters linger on stage even when not in a scene, giving time and space a fluidity but one that is understood to be separate from the action in any given moment. This rejection of set also harks back to Elizabethan performance convention. Projections of medieval art gorgeously juxtapose whirling, close-up photographs of the dolls and projections from the live feed, two worlds colliding in Hill-Gibbins and Buether’s updated Vienna. This contrast pointedly comments on the hypocrisy of modern religious fundamentalism; pro-lifers who are so pro-life that they kill abortion providers immediately spring to mind, though there is a plethora of other examples.
Though Garai’s performance has the power and confidence that Isabella often lacks in more demure interpretations, others in the cast let it down. Zubin Varlo as Duke Vincentio is quick to shout; this soon becomes excessive and a loss of power. Though a great performance from Tom Edden as Pompey the pimp, it’s disturbing that he has been characterized as a stereotypical Jewish New Yorker obsessed with money. However, Ivanno Jeremiah is an excellent Claudio with a quietness that is great contrast to the fiery Isabella. The colour-blind casting proudly shows off the UK’s diverse talent, with a female Sarah Malin as Escalus, PA to the duke and his deputy. Paul Ready as Angelo, the floundering, conservative who covers Vincentio during has absence and tries to bed Isabella in exchange for her brother’s life is definitely despicable but also incredibly conflicted. It’s easy to almost feel pity for him at times.
There is no doubt that this production looks fantastic, particularly in the opening and closing sequences. It updates well and has contemporary relevance on several levels, but there’s little unity across the design elements. This reminds me of Baz Luhrmann’s 1990’s Romeo & Juliet – all angry and dystopian and fast. It’s non-specific to a time and place, just broadly Western contemporary. It’s diverse in race, gender and accent and could easily be London, Paris, New York, or any other sleazy, urban environment. This gives it universality, but also shows laziness. I wonder if the design was initially chosen because it looks lush rather than makes a specific comment. Despite my interpretation of the underlying meaning of the design, I can’t help but to consider that my mind is constructing meaning that isn’t actually there. This was a relentless unease that lingered for the duration of the performance, though it didn’t spoil the experience.
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