Measure for Measure

It's real, cool, this Shakespeare at Playhouse

As soon as they started playing cool jazz in the background and the curtain rose on a cocktail party, the alarm bells started to jingle in my mind. For this was Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the opening production of the new Nottingham Playhouse season. And Shakespeare didn't write for cool jazz and cocktail parties.

When I saw the Duke of Vienna pick up his bowler hat and airline luggage, and spotted his deputy Angelo in thick, library glasses, I clutched my programme and prepared for doom, groaning softly: "They'll never do it."

But, by all that's holy, the Playhouse has done it. Magnificently, against all odds. Measure for Measure in modern dress is superb, the great gamble that has come off.

Judi Dench and Alan Howard

So cheeky

I've rarely enjoyed a Shakespearean performance so much; certainly never seen an experiment succeed so brilliantly. It has all the stature of Shakespeare (with slight diminution of some of the poetry now and then), plus all the cheekiness and daring of a new approach.

How much it adds to an orthodox performance I couldn't say, since I've never seen the play in performance (the last professional production in Nottingham was 44 years ago). But John Neville's bold but maturely judged production can only further the view that even Shakespeare can sometimes benefit by the vigour of theatre technique in the 60s.

City gone to pot

The play's Vienna has the flavour of Berlin in the 30s - a city gone to pot, determined only to stew in deeper corruption and vice.

Then, cutting into this steamy city, Angelo - the ascetic, puritanical deputy of the absent Duke - unearths old but still valid laws, cleaning-up the brothels, gaoling dozens.

And, above all, determined to make an example of one man - Claudio - by executing him for sleeping with his girl. One almost hears the dry, legal documents crackling in the voice of this Angelo, the recorded voice of the recorded law.

Yet under it one detects the lechery he purports to stamp out. It's a measure of Alan Howard's splendidly controlled performance that for all his clipped, lawyer's talk, Angelo has the makings of a very dirty and hypocritical young man.

The idiom of Carnaby Street - mod. gear, scooters, newspaper sellers, photographers and all - fits like a glove, and gives this morality play three dimensions. I hope that teenagers who wouldn't go near Shakespeare for all the strings on a Beatle's guitar will go and see this Measure for Measure.

Done against a drastically stark, fencelike set by Patrick Robertson, it heightens the pleading of Claudio's sister Isabella by the rumbustious, music-hall fun of its bawdy elements. Pure in the white robe of a novice nun, Isabella is put over by Judi Dench with a naive candour, an inherant goodness that doesn't make her into a mere prig. Her recoil at Angelo's suggestion that she should become his mistress has great impact.

Leers and winks

Cheering her on from the sidelines, yet ever ready to jump with both feet into whatever roguery is going is Edward Woodward's Lucio. Somebody should throw a net over Mr. Woodward and tie him to the Playhouse by fair means or foul. The man has the vitality of ten, a Spring-heeled Jack of the stage as he leers and winks and bounces about as that super spiv, that King Con.

There are many notable performances in this remarkable production (in which Michael Rudman assists). John Tordoff offers another gem of a comedy part as the constable Elbow (tin hat and defence medal); Harold Innocent is gorgeously garish as the pimp Pompey, in nude-painted tie and fluourescent socks; Christopher Hancock gentle as the Duke; Ronald Magill the kindly Escalus; and John Shrapnel a mixture of fear and bewilderment as the condemned Claudio.

Spry wit

Iwan Williams, the theatre's resident musical director, has done five songs with the spry wit of the music hall, as well as setting Shakespeare's 'Take, Oh, Take Those Lips Away' to a blues' melody sung in the sweeping-up hour of a nightclub. And his plaintive guitar piece at the beginning is worthy of future fame.

Rosemary Vercoe's costumes rivet the eye with their grotesque aptness.

The new season is well and boldly launched.

Emrys Bryson

The Guardian Journal, 23.9.65.

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Playing Shakespeare/Measure for Measure