REVIEW: Measure for Measure

Shakespeare’s meditation on vice and virtue has been marvellously brought to life by the Marlowe Society at The Cambridge Arts Theatre.

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The play begins amid the tightening of the laws surrounding sex and bawd(y) houses in Vienna.

We are presented with Claudio being arrested for fornication, and we encounter the vengeful wrath of Angelo, executing his justice upon the city in the place of the ‘beloved’ Duke Vincentio, who has gone undercover as a friar. One of Shakespeare’s bawdier scripts, it weaves between the lives of those who would all too happily welcome a relaxing of the laws around fornication (since their trade is just that!) and those within the justice system upholding it. Caught in the middle is Claudio’s sister Isabella, the picture of virtue, a to-be holy sister, who is presented with an impossible offer to save her brother.

The leads are strong. Mark Milligan‘s undercover Duke was very funny when the part called for it, whilst also being able to meet the demands of more dramatic scenes well. Alexandra Wetherall‘s Isabella hit her stride about half way through the first half, convincingly distraught over her brother and able to spit delicious poison when she is being pushed around by the men in her life. Isabella is not one of Shakespeare’s weaker women and Alexandra was able to show her strength.

Marco Young as Angelo. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Marco Young as ‘conflicted tyrant Angelo’. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Marco Young‘s conflicted tyrant Angelo was menacing and delivered his lines well, especially his monologues, but came across as a little confused. His motives were unclear and his love/craving for Isabella does appear to come out of nowhere – making him the out and out villain of the piece, evoking no sympathy, when a slightly differing portrayal might have garnered some.

Although this is not one of Shakespeare’s laugh-a-minute plays, the comedy here is masterful. Not a single joke is missed or overplayed. Tom Beaven‘s man about town Lucio is the epitome of lust, greed and flippancy, and Tom was both subtle and overt as the gags called for it – he is the perfect one we ‘love-to-hate’. Aoife Kennan‘s Pompey, a pimp and altogether hedonist, stole every scene she was in. Again, without overplaying her lines or jokes, she was hilarious. Honourable mentions go to Raphael Wakefield (for Elbow), Rosie Brown (for Mistress Overdone) and Joe Sefton (for Abhorson), who understood the size of their smaller parts and earned their laughs.

Rosie Brown as Mistress Overdone along with Aoife Kennan, who plays Pompey, and 'stole every scene she was in.' (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Rosie Brown and Aoife Kennan, who ‘stole every scene she was in’. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Tom Littler‘s direction is generally sleek and strong. The toughest thing a director has on his hands with Shakespeare is ensuring his actors understand their characters and every single line – when the actors understand, an audience can – and this was most certainly the case with the production. The icing on the cake would have been perhaps some more depth and richness in the case of several characters. Angelo and Isabella are strictly one-dimensional; the script’s Duke is conniving and manipulative but comes across as a straight hero; and the very small roles could have been worked through slightly more to make them perhaps more memorable. The genius shown in the understanding of the comedic language is not equalled in the level of sophistication we find in the drama. Overall, though, the entire play comes together very well, drama and comedy playing off each other enjoyably.

Marco Young as Angelo and Mark Milligan as the Duke. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

Marco Young as Angelo and Mark Milligan as the Duke. (Photo Credit: Amelia Oakley)

The set – an elevated platform for the Duke’s rooms with flexible space in front – works very well, allowing us to experience the streets of Vienna and the inner chambers simultaneously and see everything clearly. The costumes were generally good if a bit confused in terms of dating and not entirely accurate when it came to the clergy. Sensorily – both visually with effective lighting and audibly with wonderful incidental music – the production is highly enjoyable and layered.

The Marlowe Society’s Measure For Measure is certainly worth your time. Go along, step back in time, be challenged; join in as judge, jury and executioner, and decide your own verdict on what characters’ fates should be, whether that be an eye for an eye, measure for measure – or something else.

3.5/5 stars