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Measure for Measure

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. — Duke
Measure for Measure
Anna Maxwell Martin as Isabella and Rory Kinnear as Angelo (Keith Pattison)
Michael Attenborough has taken Shakespeare's famous problem play Measure for Measure and done something new with it. I am not sure that it is any the less problematic with his ideas implemented but they are stimulating and the execution is original.

At the Almeida, Ben Miles plays Duke Vincentio who abandons his responsibilities as ruler to the inexperienced Angelo (Rory Kinnear), who is able to override the sensible, experienced Escalus (David Killick) and the reasonable Provost (David Annen). Anna Maxwell Martin plays Isabella, the nun whose brother is sentenced to death and who pleads for his life with Angelo.

Rory Kinnear as Angelo is a quiet public servant, suddenly promoted way beyond his capabilities, a modest, even likable man who is trying to bring some order to the depraved brothel ridden, pimp infested city of Vienna. He falls head over heels in love with Isabella, the turn on for him being her modesty and moral rectitude. This view is opposed to the many lustful interpretations of Angelo as an out and out villain. Amusingly, we see him trying to increase his attraction for Isabella by taking off his spectacles and inserting contact lenses which make him blink and his eyes sting. But the very clumsy scene when he tries to ravish her on the table top in his office feels appropriately uncomfortable and disgust filled.

Anna Maxwell Martin's straitlaced Isabella has many clever arguments often kneeling as if praying to God while she asks for the life of her brother Claudio (Emun Elliott) to be spared after he has made his Juliet (Daisy Boulton) pregnant. Maxwell Martin's Isabella is at turns feisty, strong willed and even angry but never desperate enough to yield her virginity. As if to remind us as to her lack of interest in her sexuality, we first see Isabella in her no-nonsense underwear, a functional plain cream bra and waist slip, while another nun helps her put on the long black velvet dress she will wear throughout the production and of which Isabella will spend the first half hour in a displacement activity trying to do up the dozens of button loops on the sleeves.

The problem for me with this milder interpretation of Angelo is why he cannot keep his word to spare Claudio after he thinks that he has deflowered Isabella. Maybe Isabella deflowered has no value for him because what he perversely values is her virginity. Maybe also he is a hard line Puritan and Claudio has to die because that is the law but the hypocrisy is rife.

I liked Emun Elliott's gently pleading brother but no-one really comes off well in this play. The Duke is the architect of most of the problems. Disguised as a friar, he wheels in Angelo's former fiancée, the abandoned Mariana (Victoria Lloyd) to take Isabella's place in Angelo's bed but forcing Angelo to marry Mariana surely cannot make for a happy marriage for her, or of course for him. Ben Miles looks responsible and wise but his treatment of Isabella in letting her think her brother has died is very cruel and as he declares his suit, it is no wonder that she just looks on impassively, almost stunned by the turn of events.

The ensemble bawds and prostitutes give good lusty support. Sean Kearns' Barnadine is interesting when he refuses to be put to death and Trevor Cooper's Pompey Bum gives good support as the notorious pimp. Lloyd Hutchinson is interesting as the gossip Lucio (he reminds me of Eddie Izzard) who tells the duke in disguise of the duke's scurrilous reputation which in disguise he cannot defend. Attenborough's production opens with some very modern erotic dancing using apertures in the set, and with swivelling panels to switch between Angelo's office with its dark red and black mural of renaissance painting, the bars and brick of the prison and the seedy Viennese streets.

I've been talking to people who have taught Measure for Measure where students can be encouraged to debate the moral dilemmas and they have an affection this play which I have not. I suppose the thought of seducing a nun still creates a sexual frisson for men judging by the number of stripograms hired in religious habit.

Editor's Note: This is the second Measure for Measure reviewed at Curtainup this week. For the quite different one across the pond, click here.

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Measure for Measure
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Attenborough

Starring: Ben Miles, Rory Kinnear, Anna Maxwell Martin
With: David Killick, Nick Richards, Lloyd Hutchinson, Mark Monero, Flaminia Cinque, Trevor Cooper, Emun Elliott, David Annen, Andrew French, Jessica Tomchack, Victoria Lloyd, Tony Turner, Sean Kearns, Daisy Boulton
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: David Hersey
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sound: John Leonard
Movement: Imogen Knight
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 10th April 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th February 2010 performance at the Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: Angel, Islington)

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