Measure for Measure review – Shakespeare's problem play gets a 1970s makeover

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
There are strong performances in this tale of sex, power and morality reimagined by director Blanche McIntyre

If there is a #MeToo moment in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Blanche McIntyre’s production shows it to be inside this problem play’s exploration of sex, power, morality and double standards in leadership.

“To whom should I complain?” says the novice nun, Isabella, after Angelo presents his monstrous bargain – her virginity in exchange for her imprisoned brother’s life. And when she threatens to tell the world what kind of governor he is, he throws back: “Who will believe thee?”

Her words – and his – chime with current conversations on male sexual predation, the price of calling it out and questions around consent. McIntyre transposes the drama to a seedy 1970s London which rages with sex, corrupt governance and puritanical hypocrisies. A power cut early on gestures towards the three-day week, but little on James Cotterill’s minimal set builds a portrait of the city.

Georgia Landers is clear-eyed and heroic as Isabella; the bargain with Angelo is a strong scene in which she appears horrified yet defiant. But as a play with several sharp plot-turns and tricky balances between darkness and light, the comedy feels too drawn out here. Some scenes have flashes of Benny Hill and Carry On, with half-clad men tumbling out of Mistress Overdone’s brothel in psychedelic underpants. Mistress Overdone herself (Ishia Bennison) has more than a touch of Barbara Windsor. There is a rogue dildo, too, and amid the nuns and friars, it all steers close to looking like a retro gathering of “tarts and vicars.”

The period detail is delightful nonetheless, from Burt Bacharach style muzak to Angelo’s once-betrothed, Mariana, who in an empire-line dress looks like one of David Hockney’s swimming pool figures.

The production as a whole feels static, its pacing a little flabby, but the cast give strong performances: Ashley Zhangazha’s severe, unbending Angelo shows how quickly power corrupts. Eloise Secker, who plays several characters including Pompey and Mariana, delivers deadpan wit sublimely.

It is the women who hold the moral rectitude here, and the ultimate power: Escalus (Bennison, doubling up brilliantly) and Vincentio are gender-switched. Hattie Ladbury, as the Duke, is both stately and mischievous in her disguise as the friar. This latter reversal also makes her wedding proposal to Isabella more progressive, with its lesbian overtones, and the nun’s final pause is all the more pregnant.

• At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 15 January.

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