This year, Measure for Measure has been a popular play. After the excellent Cheek by Jowl Russian language Measure came what sounded like a more straightforwardly comic production at the Globe in the summer (I didn’t see it, so will refrain from further comment) and now The Young Vic have offered their own dark take on what is, surely, one of Shakespeare’s best plays. I suppose this recent glut means the play will have to take a back seat for a little while though presumably the RSC will tackle it at some point in Greg Doran’s tenure. I’ll wait for that, though not with too much hope.
Hope, however, was in abundance for the Young Vic Measure directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins. And hope, on this occasion, was rewarded. When it comes to theatre, I’m fairly easily pleased yet somehow usually disappointed. I only really need one moment of brilliance to enjoy and I’ll be pretty happy. This production served up several. It ended, wonderfully, with the eerily awkward comedy of a tableau. The Duke (Zubin Varla) forced each of the cast members into an unlikely and unhappy partnership. This obviously included Angelo (Paul Ready) and Mariana (Cath Whitefield), as well as the Duke and Isabella (Romala Garai), but, more unexpectedly, it meant Escalus (here, played as a woman by Sarah Malin) and Barnadine (Matthew Wynn) were paired and the unhappiness of the situation cast a shadow even over the the one consensual coupling: Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Juliet (Natalie Simpson). It’s a brilliant way to end: funny, but also disturbing, a balance that so many modern productions of early modern plays manage to get wrong. There were lots of other grace notes. For example, in a perfect piece of modernising, Mariana’s doleful tune was transmuted into the Alanis Morisette’s breakup song ‘You Oughta Know’. But my favourite moments involved the use of a large quantity of inflatable sex dolls (that’s a sentence I hadn’t ever imagined having to write).
At the beginning of the production, the stage was filled with inflatable dolls and Escalus and Angelo each unpicked their way through the mass of breasts, open mouths, and erect penises, looking deeply uncomfortable in doing so. Soon after, the novice nun Isabella prayed amidst the plastic bodies creating one of the production’s many scenes of incongruity (throughout the production, the heavy use of video projections was coupled with images from medieval and Renaissance art). But the sex dolls were obviously not just sex dolls. Writing in The Guardian Michael Billington commented on the logic of the design’s excesses:
The plastic sex dolls evoke the hedonistic decay into which Duke Vincentio’s Vienna has fallen. With the installation of his stiff-backed deputy, Angelo, the dolls are swept behind close doors. Thanks to video cameras, however, they are never wholly out of sight and we are constantly reminded of the secret world of vice and torture that exists behind the puritanical facade of Angelo’s city.
But Billington captures little of the extraordinary effect created by these dolls. It’s true that they might, broadly, evoke hedonistic decay but they are not just dolls. They start off as dolls, for sure, but in the sequence to which Billington alludes (the incredible moment when all of the dolls are removed from the stage) they are not merely dolls but bodies. In an interpolated scene, Angelo entered declaiming scripture. An alarm sounded and the big doors at the back of the stage opened. The cast members pushed, shoved, threw, and kicked the sex dolls through the doors – some of these bodies floated up into the air before falling again. It had a kind of graceful beauty, to be sure, but it also struck me as extremely violent and seemed evocative not only of the physical violence to which sex workers are subjected but also the social violence (invisible to many) served down by authority to the detriment of the most vulnerable members of society. Angelo’s restrictive legislation was here seen to have its immediate effect. By suggesting that the dolls evoked the seedy world of ‘vice and torture’ that Angelo tried to hide, Billington, I think, misses the point. It’s not that Angelo wants to hide this corruption – he wants to get rid of it, after all – but that he wants to hide only his own corruption. The biggest problem, then is not with the underworld, but rather with the way in which that world is handled by authority. The dolls are pushed and kicked around not only by the bawd Pompey (Tom Edden) but by everyone in the play and never more terrifyingly than by those who wield authority. At the end of the production, the sex dolls are still visible but by this point they have been shaped into a formation that calls to mind the terrible atrocities of the last hundred years. They are sex dolls, of course, and not bodies, but they speak of a powerful violence that lives, not only in the play’s world, but in our own.