Measure for Measure, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, review: yet another disservice to Shakespeare

Measure for Measure's perturbing themes are lost in this flimsy production - Helen Murray
Measure for Measure's perturbing themes are lost in this flimsy production - Helen Murray

When a great Shakespearean actor such as Antony Sher dies, thoughts turn to the younger generation. Who will follow in the footsteps of such a giant? And how?

Shakespeare in our regional theatre is a woefully fleeting occurrence. The National is unreliable. The RSC’s strategy nowadays appears to be ‘less is more’. I had hopes for the Globe: when Michelle Terry – notably gifted at Shakespeare, like her forerunner Mark Rylance – took over in 2017, I thought we’d see a committed ensemble emerge, galvanising the scene.

But after first floundering by keeping directors at arm’s length, she has inclined to business as usual. Actors come and go, and showy directors’ theatre was back with a bang this summer with a concept-loaded Romeo and Juliet that snipped the text to make way for socio-political statements about Britain today.

The beauty and value of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse should be that it concentrates minds on the words, foregrounding the actor’s craft through its candle-lit intimacy. But Blanche McIntyre – whom I usually admire – has gone for broke with her Measure for Measure, locating it in the sex-addled, strife-ridden mid-70s – an initial electric-light power-cut ‘explains’ the use of candles – and cluttering it with comic business.

Yes, of course, the play was classified as a ‘comedy’ in the First Folio. But the Vienna conjured in Shakespeare’s imagination circa 1603 is a cesspit of repression, abuse and corruption. Civic authority is compromised first by its tolerance, then, as the city’s Duke engineers a vanishing act, planting his deputy Angelo in his stead, through its intolerant clampdown on vice. What laughter there is should perturb not reassure.

All the subtlety of Benny Hill: Hattie Ladbury as Duke and Gyuri Sarossy as Lucio - Helen Murray
All the subtlety of Benny Hill: Hattie Ladbury as Duke and Gyuri Sarossy as Lucio - Helen Murray

Shakespeare is fascinated with intricately opposed psychological states – again and again, people seem one thing, but prove another. In Measure for Measure, he probes that duality with zeal. Angelo doesn’t assume office as a knowing hypocrite – he believes himself upright, discovers the worst in himself when temptation calls in the form of novice nun Isabella, pleading for the life of her fornicator brother Claudio.

In productions that leave you reeling, the exchanges between the pair have a force of lid-rattling emotional turmoil. Memorable portrayals – I’m thinking of Daniel Evans or Alex Jennings – show a man whose sense of himself cracks under sexual pressure: “She speaks and ‘tis such sense that my sense breeds with it” is like a depth-charge.

But here, playing Angelo as a buttoned-up bureaucrat with a clipboard, Ashley Zhangazha registers the about-turn as a logical step, not a body-blow. The same man – given to a throttled, staccato delivery – continues to stand before us, shifty but essentially self-composed. Likewise, as Isabella, Georgia Landers brings an even-handed lucidity, rather than a defensive fanaticism, to retorts like “Better it were a brother died at once than that a sister, by redeeming him, should die for ever.” The words don’t sound heartfelt.

That might be a matter of training. But I think the problem is with the production, which relishes distinctive mannerisms and rushes the critical moments, weakening the reality of mortal jeopardy. Hattie Ladbury’s Duke (here referred to with feminine pronouns) has a fitful, stilted speech, Eloise Secker’s Pompey tosses off her lines in a deadpan monotone, while Daniel Millar’s idiot constable Elbow milks his early scene for laughs with a malfunctioning loud hailer, displaying all the subtlety of Benny Hill.

There are moments when my reservations evaporated – Ishia Bennison is simply very funny as the prisoner Barnardine, pleading drunkenness as an excuse not to be hanged. But for all its retro apparel, this is not a vintage night, and, for the future health of Shakespeare in performance, the Globe badly needs something more than middling.

Until Jan 15. Tickets: 020 7401 9919;