A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Measure for Measure

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.   It 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) are beaten.

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…”

 It is 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.”