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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  David Killick, Flaminia Cinque and Mark Monero/ Ph: Keith Pattison

It’s a fair bet that the Bard assumed human nature was eternally corrupt. He was right, of course. Four hundred years after Shakespeare penned Measure for Measure, we are still plagued with the hideous consequences of those who proclaim the absolute truth of their absolute beliefs. Doctrine denies doubt.
Shakespeare ended his career in those dodgy dog days when the aged Elizabeth’s overlong reign had finally given way to that of the foul James (son of her lifelong rival, Mary, Queen of Scots). Self-preservation probably prompted Shakespeare to situate this play in Vienna – thus distancing himself from the duplicities of London’s royal politics. 
Measure for Measure probes the problems and paradoxes of religious fundamentalism. It is a sexual cesspool spearheaded by a pair of prigs who clash over sins of the flesh. Isabella, a postulant nun, is forced to beg for the life of her brother who has been sentenced to death because he has got his betrothed with child. Isabella must address her pleas to Angelo, a strict moralist who is perfectly encapsulated by one of the play’s lowlifes who says: “when he makes water, his urine is congeal’d ice.”
Unexpectedly, the upright Angelo tips the scales of justice with a sudden unquenchable passion for the nun. He promises to let her brother live if she will yield up her virginity to him. Horrified, she insists that her brother would rather die.
Human nature being what it is, Isabella’s belief in her brother is soon sent crashing. In fact, his desperate plea for life is one of the lyric highpoints of the text. But neither Isabella nor Angelo knows how to hear him. Accommodation is alien to their absolutisms.
So far – halfway through – so good. But now Shakespeare really starts to stir up and spin out both possibilities and consequences. He wants to make certain that we realize black and/or white are not definitive and we must never be too comfortable with our own rights and wrongs.
It is difficult to know how to react to Anna Maxwell Martin’s sometimes stunning Isabella. She shifts back and forth between fervid conviction and stilted histrionics. This same sort of presentational ambivalence plagued her performance of Sally Bowles in the acclaimed 2006 West End revival of Cabaret.
Rory Kinnear is the precise opposite. His intractably taut Angelo is all clenched buttocks and snotty superciliousness – authority cloaking insecurity. One of the few jokes in director Michael Attenborough’s fine production finds Angelo (about to proposition Isabella) abandoning his wire-rimmed glasses in favor of contact lenses. The laugh this produces is really a groan of painful self-recognition.
The little genuine comedy found in this script comes from Lucio, a swaggering braggart who lies with a glib ease that can’t possibly remain unpunished. Lloyd Hutchinson plays him as a louche anecdote to Shakespeare’s darkest themes.
The Almedia team once again deserves full kudos for providing exceptional chamber theatre ideally scaled, immediate and provocative.


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