The virtues of this inventive modern dress
production at the National Theatre are its clarity and the performances
of its three principals – Paul Rhys as Angelo, Naomi Frederick
as Isabella, and David Troughton as the Duke.
is directed by Simon McBurney, who also directs Complicite, the
co-producer. Solving most
of the problems presented by this difficult “problem” play, Mr.
McBurney gives it contemporary relevance. Multiple tv monitors
suggest constant surveillance by the state, where the stern deputy
ruler Angelo is determined to cure the “corruption” the departing
Duke of Vienna has seen “boil and bubble.”
But the too-lenient Duke has his reservations about the
cold Angelo, “whose very blood is snow broth.”
Assuming the disguise of a friar, the Duke will “see if
power change purpose, what our seemers be.” Those words set the dual theme of the play:
power and testing. Given
the power, how will the seeming virtuous Angelo use it?
We see immediately that with his newly-acquired
power, Angelo is going to extremes: cctv
is everywhere, and an old law against fornication is invoked against
gentleman Claudio, the evidence being the pregnancy of Juliet,
whom he has not yet married. Death is decreed as his punishment, and awaiting
execution he is thrown into prison, where inmates (in Guantanamo
Bay orange jump suits)
The low comedy scenes define the leniency of
the laws under the Duke. We
are in the bordello run by Mistress Overdone (Tamzin Griffin),
where the prostitutes, when not plying their trade, watch porn
films with the customers. When Overdone bemoans the fact that Angelo is
closing all the houses of prostitution, her pimp Pompey (Richard
Katz) assures her, “though you change your place, you need not
change your trade.” Lucio, effectively portrayed by Toby Jones,
is a gentleman whose standards are even lower: a duplicitous trouble-maker,
he not only disparages the absent Duke but refuses to bail out
Pompey when he is thrown in jail. Always optimistic, once there,
Pompey cheerfully accepts a job as assistant executioner.
Also in the jail, run by the good-hearted Provost,
is Claudio (Ben Mayjes). The
test of Angelo’s reputed
virtue is about to begin, even as he emphatically denies the Provost’s
suggestion that he too might fall as Claudio has. Enter the condemned man’s sister Isabella, a
novitiate about to become a nun, who has come to Angelo to ask
for mercy in her brother’s behalf.
Their two encounters, in which the puritanical Angelo feels
himself sexually stirred by Isabella, are dramatic high points.
Mr. Rhys is compelling as Angelo begins his approach, tentatively
at first, self-doubting, but growing bolder.
Ms. Frederick as the chaste, unyielding Isabella is impressive
as she rebuts his reasons for justice and pleads for mercy.
Their argument escalates, with a subtext that arouses Angelo
(confided in an aside to the audience). His tormented, questioning
soliloquy follows: “Dost thou desire her foully for those things/That
make her good?” Suspense created, it builds in their next encounter,
leading to Angelo’s proposal that Isabella submit to him sexually
in exchange for her brother’s life. Outraged, she declines: “More
than our brother is our chastity.”
She is equally outraged when her brother, awaiting execution,
does not agree.
The Duke succeeds in his attempt to save Isabella
by substituting Angelo’s former fiancée Mariana for Isabella at
the clandestine seduction. But
Angelo goes back on his agreement to free Claudio after the assignation,
and orders his execution. In an excellent portrayal by David Troughton,
the Duke, who could seem sanctimonious, becomes human and sympathetic.
Convincingly and beautifully delivered is his speech of
consolation to Claudio, “Be absolute for death…”
he who commands the final scene, both the mounting suspense and
the resolution, when Isabella is tested: even though she believes
her brother is dead (he isn’t), she kneels to ask mercy for Angelo.
The play ends with a mass marriage, a favorite device of
Shakespearean comedy. Realizing that the deputy (as in the source)
is not a suitable mate for Isabella, Shakespeare has invented
Mariana to pair with Angelo. And
for Isabella? Even Mr. Troughton’s considerable skill cannot
quite convince us when he suddenly proposes to her: “Give me your
hand, and say you will be mine.”