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Conjuring with morality

10 December 2011

12:00 PM

10 December 2011

12:00 PM

You can see why Harold Bloom, in his marvellous book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, should have called Measure for Measure one of Shakespeare’s most ‘rancid’ plays. But it’s also one that he greatly admired, though it takes a good production like Roxana Silbert’s new one at Stratford to show you just why.

Bloom’s rancidity resides in the unpleasantness of the characters, and in the way in which even the seemingly virtuous go about their morality. Wisely eschewing any overly specific setting, Silbert lets the costumes do the work. It isn’t just the thriving sex industry in ‘Vienna’ that enjoys restrictive clothing, but the Duke and Angelo, both affecting leather corsets worn over roll-neck sweaters reminiscent of 1930s fascist uniform. Repression rules, OK, and this also means an Isabella primly dressed from first to last as a probationer at the nunnery.

The production offers an unusual solution as to why the Duke, entrusting the unpopular work to his puritanical deputy Angelo, suddenly resolves on a purge of the city. Raymond Coulthard plays the Duke as an avuncular ruler with a taste for theatricality. The exposure of Angelo’s hypocrisy becomes an elaborate practical joke in which the Duke, returning incognito as a seemingly benign Friar, finds perverse pleasure both as puppet-master and voyeur. Coulthard enjoys showing off the conjurer’s conventional party tricks, though these are but the outer show of the less agreeable games that the Duke plays with his subjects. Coulthard has both devastating charm and authority which he doesn’t hesitate to use to woo, but maybe not to win, the audience’s complicity.

Jamie Ballard’s Angelo is no obvious devil, just a tediously solid fellow with zero emotional understanding and zealous confidence in the letter of the law. He doesn’t exactly answer to Lucio’s description of him as peeing ‘congeal’d ice’, but his smile is certainly enough to chill the blood. There’s an interesting twist in that this Angelo is undone by no conventional beauty but by the rather more sober charms of Jodie McNee’s Isabella, an alarmingly articulate woman who’s a novice-nun from start to finish. Was it the masculine rationality of her appeal that had turned him on?

Silbert shows that best sense is to be made of the play by treating it as far as possible as comedy, not elevating its dark materials into anything too tragic. Paul Chahidi’s roly-poly Lucio is a full-throated, totally outrageous, wonderfully comic turn that one so rarely sees these days. You have to accept that it’s only in the up-front roguish characters, like Lucio, Pompey the Bawd and Barnadine, perpetually too drunk to be hanged, that true life and energy reside in the play. The ‘happy ending’ conjured by the Duke is yet another uncomfortable illusion, for what’s to be expected of the marriage of Angelo and Mariana, of Lucio to his ‘whore’, and of the Duke himself to Isabella? Silbert wisely rounds off the show by having the players cheer us up with a strictly exuberant stamping dance.

If you’ve ever suffered ropework in a school gym you’ll be awestruck by what they get up to in the RSC’s Christmas show. The Heart of Robin Hood is a new play by David Farr who’s sought to freshen up Sherwood Forest by handing over production, design and music to the excellent Icelandic team of Gisli Örn Gardarsson, Börkur Jonsson and Högni Egilsson. Sensationally good use is made of the height of the new RST. Overhead there’s the canopy of a mighty oak, while the stage floor sweeps up at the back to create a terrifyingly steep slope down which the more fun-loving characters arrive on their bottoms. In the stage floor there’s a pool, hopefully warmed by a hot spring, for involuntary immersions, and a bottomless well down which villains may conveniently be disposed. You’ll gather this is one of those shows in which the scenery and circus magic tend to take over, but as David Farr’s text is stronger on situation than on memorable lines this is all to the good.

James McArdle’s Robin Hood is more of a Macheath, robbing where he can, than a philanthropic outlaw. In a deliberate echo of As You Like It, Marion is a madcap Rosalind fleeing unwelcome suitors at her father’s castle for a more wholesome life in the forest. Disguising herself as ‘Martin of Sherwood’ she’s able to join Robin’s women-fearing band. After many an adventure she turns him around so that he’s championing the poor against the wicked Prince John (Martin Hutson) and winning her for his wife. As played with superlative energy, style and athleticism by Iris Roberts, it’s Marion who becomes the heart and soul of the show. No question that on the opening night it was greatly enjoyed by children of all ages.

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