Review: Measure for Measure, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ★★★☆☆

The ’70s seem like the ideal setting for the Globe Theatre’s adaption of Measure for Measure playing in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with direction by Blanche McIntyre. It also provides a nice segue from electric light to the candlelight of the playhouse – a power cut at the play’s beginning forcing the use of candles to light the way through the murky ’70s with sexual abuse abound.

Duke Vincentio of Vienna (Hattie Ladbury) has left the governance of the city to her deputy, Angelo (Ashley Zhangazha) who is unrelenting in his enforcement of fornication laws, sentencing Claudio (Josh Zaré) to death. This sets in motion a chain of events that result in Claudio’s sister, the novice Isabella (Georgia Landers), being sexually coerced by Angelo. The ’70s setting provides this plot with a glorious oeuvre of design – the costume design by Sian Harris provides all the beige suits anyone could desire – best paired with a yellow shirt of course. And of course there are moustaches.

Hattie Ladbury and Gyuri Sarossy. Photo: Helen Murray

It is a strongly acted production. Landers movingly portrays Isabella and her passion for her beliefs, while Zhangazha conveys the contradictions and confusion of the straight-laced Angelo so well that you can see the inner-workings of his mind playing out on his face. But perhaps the best performances are in the supporting cast – Ishia Bennison’s alcohol-pickled prisoner Barnadine is ingenious and laugh out loud funny, as is Gyuri Sarossy’s eccentrically posh Lucio. Eloise Secker proves her versatility too with three completely unique performances as Pompey, Marianna and Juliet.

What the acting cannot do is resolve the problems of substance. Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays; part comedy, part social commentary – and it feels all the more problematic when played today, albeit for different reasons. The sexual coercion element of the social commentary does not need the sleazy-’70s setting given more recent developments and the rise of the Me Too Movement whose slogan ‘Believe me’ is echoed in Isabella’s devastating question of us; “Who would believe me?” The problem is that the focus on comedy somewhat undermines the seriousness of Isabella’s  situation.

Georgia Landers. Photo: Helen Murray.

But there is also the ‘Bed Trick’ played on Angelo which, seemingly acceptable in the play, evokes questions of consent, regardless of what Angelo had promised in the past. There is also the problem of why this all plays out in the first place. The Duke is seemingly invested in ensuring Claudio’s release but plays games and tricks rather than stepping out and calling a halt to proceedings, and she provides a long-winded charade when she does eventually re-emerge from her cover.

Despite all this it is an enjoyable evening and the two and a half hours speed by. So then – the problem; a well acted, well produced, well designed, enjoyable production in need of a better text.

Measure for Measure is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 15 January