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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Ben Miles and Anna Maxwell Martin/ Ph: Keith Pattison

It’s odd that Measure for Measure should be so often left to gather dust under the banner "problem play." Of all Shakespeare’s works it feels arguably the most modern. Riven with awkward questions about justice, power, politics and sexual morality, it is extremely hard to get right, invariably dependent on a superb actor to carry the play as either the virgin fundamentalist Isabella or the lustful autocrat Angelo. Michael Attenborough’s psychologically riveting modern dress production is blessed with two superb actors, Anna Maxwell Martin and Rory Kinnear, and it is their blazing, weirdly sexually charged exchanges as they pit their personal brand of moral dogma against each other that really lift Attenborough’s consistently interesting production into something utterly gripping.
Rather brilliantly, Kinnear plays Antonio, left to clean up the city’s moral health by the departing Duke, not as an aspiring extremist but as a clammy-skinned, small-minded bureaucrat who transforms into a vicious bully the second he is handed an ounce of power. Utterly – and unhappily – floored by Maxwell Martin’s sternly sexual Isabella, who he loves surely as much as he carnally craves, he shoves in contact lenses before they meet in an attempt to impress, can’t control his sweaty hands from shaking as he stammers and stutters, and, as the last resort of the truly weak, pinions her to the desk in a gesture of threatened rape. For her part Maxwell Martin has an odd, geeky sexuality that feels just right for Isabella but also an incendiary intelligence and a molten core of self righteousness as she demands justice for her brother; at times in her floor-length Gothic dress and crusading spirit she almost feels like 16th century puritan straight out of Salem.
Attenborough extends this level of detail and luminosity to the rest of the cast, cleaning and polishing the more knotty murky reaches of this demanding and difficult text. Ben Miles’ sympathetic Duke is clearly nursing his own feverish infatuation for Isabella as he scurries about dressed as a monk, trying with a subtle sense of increasing desperation to right the terrible wrongs he has unwittingly unleashed. Lloyd Hutchinson’s spivvy Lucio meanwhile is a pocket of comic delight, swaying like wheat in the wind as he swaps allegiance back and forth, and in his blatant slipperiness the most explicitly visual symbol of Vienna’s rampaging moral chaos.  
It’s a pity Attenborough resists exploiting the play’s sleazy, insidious atmosphere and opts instead for a strangely bland Vienna in which garish prostitutes linger with all the seedy sexuality of a pantomime villain. This is a double shame, for while Lez Butterworth’s ingenious design, in which an office doubles  as a prison, and a convent doubles as a seedy alleyway, points up the Janus-headed nature of Viennese morality, there’s little sense of the invidious social contamination of a state-imposed totalitarian morality. Still, this is a powerful evening, awkward and challenging, and which reaches its nadir in the final scene, as the Duke sets hastily about tying up loose ends by marrying everyone off, and leaving a cast of putative wives and husbands staring at each other in a state of abject horror.  



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