Measure for Measure review at Stratford: ‘..the stage sweats sex…’

Richard Lutz is whisked back to a Shakespearean play set in a turn of the century Vienna

Director Greg Doran places Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in Vienna of 1900. It’s perfect for this dark gem of a play. The city was ruled by rigid, uptight formality, almost petrified by myopia. But there was a lurid demi monde roiling beneath as the Hapsburg Empire tipped closer to the precipice.

So beneath the elegance and complacency lurked a world ready to explode. And with this in mind, Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s a play about justice and mercy, retribution and hypocrisy and, above all, a play about sex and the politics of sex, all set in the city of Freud, Schoenberg, Klimt and Schiele.

Shakespeare grabs an old tale and twists it hard. The Duke of Vienna suddenly departs leaving his vulpine deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo shuts the brothels and condemns Claudio to death for having made his (Claudio’s) fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, pleads for her brother’s life. Angelo says he’ll spare the accused if the young nun has sex with him.

Overseeing this whole lust-filled story is the missing Duke, who has not gone on his travels but has secretly returned to see how Angelo is faring.

Lucy Phelps plays the innocent Isabella with intense panache. She just wants mercy. But the man she pleads with is a sexual bully. Angelo, played by Sandy Grierson, is a self-aware predator, laden with the guilt that he is condemning a man to death for illicit sex while he wants to bed a nun. His monologues reveal a character who knows full well he can’t help his sexual attractions to Isabella despite his public Puritanical proclamations.


Shakespeare, of course, has a ball profiling the raucous heat of the night world. There are whores, pimps, madams and johns rolling in and out; there are characters with great names such as Kate Keepdown, Pompey, Elbow, Mistress Overdone and Froth. Egon Schiele would have pricked up his ears over the nighttime creatures Shakespeare invented.

Sex is everywhere. Even our beleaguered Isabella, fresh from the nunnery, refers to it, though  in horror: “The impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies…” rather than being bedded, she says to her would-be seducer. The stage sweats sex.

Set design adds to the feeling of Isabella’s despair: spare and ascetic and bordering on the bleak. And lighting by Simon Spencer adds even more to the intimations of a crumbling closed-in ruling class and a robust unruly underworld in the Vienna of 1900. Greg Doran has done a grand job on this sharp masterpiece of a play.

Photos by Helen Maybanks

Until August 29th. Tickets

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