Measure for Measure at the Young Vic
Measure for Measure is more than what critics have dubbed a “problem play” – it’s completely baffling, and a brave choice for any director to try and tackle. Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production is very Young Vic – alternative, edgy, and starring an extended cast of about a hundred blow-up sex dolls. Vienna lies in moral tatters, and the Duke is horrified. He privately elects to go about disguised, telling Angelo, his deputy, to pull the city’s socks up in his absence.
Meanwhile Claudio, a young man accused of lechery, is thrown into the stocks to await the death sentence. His sister, the convent-girl Isabella, begs Angelo for mercy – and is denied it, unless she commits the very act for which her brother is condemned. She refuses.
Michael Attenborough’s 2010 production at the Almeida used flashy tactics to bring Shakespeare’s ambiguous text to modern audiences, and Hill-Gibbins has followed suit. The use of handheld cameras, loud, thumping music and images projected on-screen are effective in bringing us up close and personal, but they’re becoming overly relied on for many contemporary productions. Miriam Buether’s set, with its interconnecting door between brothel/prison and the forestage, nicely mirrors the textual conflicts posed in a play that – for its focus on corruption in high places and hypocrisy – remains depressingly relevant today.
Zubin Varla is impressive as the manic, megalomaniac Duke, literally supporting the cast as the curtain falls and he’s revealed for who he is, ostensibly to make everything right and see that lessons are learned. Fans of Romola Garai, who plays Isabella, won’t be disappointed: she perfectly bridges the gap between tortured sibling and furious, avenging moralist. The cast is excellent, the text even more so; both would shine brighter were they given the space to do so without excessive distraction. A production run without an interval will clearly be wary of keeping the pace, but – though this visual feast is seriously good fun – it hasn’t been allowed to deliver on the things that matter most.