Young Vic Theatre, London (***)
David Lan’s Young Vic seems to be going through a particular period of radicalism at present. After Richard Jones’ eye-popping The Trial comes Joe Hill-Gibbins’s bold, iconoclastic Measure for Measure, smashing memory of any previous recent versions. This is definitely a Measure for today, full of post-modern absurdity, bleak, barbed, unforgiving.
And according to your taste, either faithful to its reputation as `a problem comedy’, or a travesty.
Recourse to the programme and other sources reveals what unfortunately wasn’t entirely clear: namely we’re in Judgement Day territory, Zubin Varla’s Vincentio, acting as the unseen, all controlling diety, the Duke who decides that through his own lax administering of the laws his city needs redeeming and appoints an apparently incorruptible deputy, Angelo, in his place whilst he, in disguise, will monitor his progress.
Hill-Gibbins starts with a stunning opening – a mound of flailing bodies, a vision of human sexual excess. But looked at more closely, the bodies are plastic blow-ups and Angelo and Escalus (a trusted adviser, here played by a woman, Sarah Malin)’s first speeches are delivered ploughing through limbs making their words almost ridiculous
Words here are constantly undercut, images contradicting words. Measure’s `dark’ comedy is reasserted with a brutal, nihilistic humour and an in-your-face realism that leaves little room for sympathy.
Video-cam is much to the fore. Hill-Gibbins uses it for close-up for the Duke’s occasional soliloquies, for prison scenes (Escalus is used as a kind of investigating magistrate) but not for Isabella’s crucial scenes with Angelo, the crux of the play, which exposes the Deputy’s hypocrisy: his attack on Isabella’s virginity in return for a stay of execution on Isabella’s brother Claudio, condemned to die as part of Angelo’s moral clean-up.
This direct confrontation should make the play’s emotional centre the starker. But Romola Garai’s Isabella’s best moment, ironically, is under the unforgiving eye of the camera capturing her haggard desperation.
As comic characters go, John Mackay’s Lucio and Tom Edden’s Pompey stand out as the most recognisably modern figures, the latter with a broad New Yorker accent as pimp, Mackay’s Scottish drawl an added touch to Lucio, the archetypal cynic.
You takes your pick. Triumph or disaster.
Measure for Measure runs at the Young Vic to Nov 7, 2015
Review first published in Reviewsgate Oct 2015