This modern dress version of Measure for Measure, opening the third season at Nottingham Playhouse last night, makes Shakespeare sound as contemporary in situation and as forceful in language as any play turned out by the young dramatists of today.
By dressing it as he does, and interjecting songs specially written by Iwan Williams, producer John Neville acknowledges a certain debt to Theatre Workshop.
Two scenes are played in a night club, with a jazz group strumming away in one corner, the prison looks oppressively like Dartmoor, and there's never a crowd without a lot of stage business to make it look either funny or frightening.
But this is still Shakespeare's play......made all the more arresting because of the modern idiom through which a judiciously selective text is expressed.
One of the so-called 'dark' comedies, although there is some splendid light relief in the spivvish capers of Edward Woodward and the delightful character acting by John Tordoff as constable Elbow, and Ursula Smith as Mistress Overdone, a Cockney bawd, this Measure for Measure pinpoints very accurately the danger of putting power, and therefore the dispensing of justice, into the hands of someone incapable of passing moral judgment.
Alan Howard, as the man deputed this power, gives a performance epitomising dictatorship. This Angelo is not a natural hypocrite ...... he really struggles with his conscience when tempted by Isabella's pleas to release her brother from sentence of death. But once he weakens, the whole edifice of his authority tumbles down and we see him as a man unfit to rule.
Christopher Hancock is the Duke who watches how his power is being usurped from the sanctuary of a monastery, and uses his friar's disguise to see that justice is done in the end, and Ronald Magill is an aged councillor who serves .... whoever's in command.
Judi Dench, as Isabella, plays one of Shakespeare's spotless innocents with all the intensity of conscience she can bring to this simple pleading role, and John Shrapnel (Claudio) and Marian Forster (his lover) are the luckless but unendearing couple who find themselves first victims to Angelo's puritanical edicts.
Pompey, a pimp serving the bawd, is played in a humorously extravagent style by Harold Innocent, and there isn't a single flaw in any of the supporting roles to spoil a production which must rank as one of the best John Neville has ever given us.
It is staged against the appropriate back projections on a set designed by Patrick Robertson and composed of a revolving, slatted screen turning miraculously to represent convent, prison, state room, market place or street. Nothing quite so clever has been seen on this stage since the theatre opened.
Evening Post, 22/23.9.1965