Skateboards and Prams: Measure for Measure and Richard III in London
by Pat Levy
Gone are the days when a dispirited English teacher walked into the classroom with 30 or so tatty graffiti-ridden school editions of Shakespeare (all possible sexual innuendoes edited out) and proceeded to bore the class to hatred of the bard once a week. What the expurgated version of Measure for Measure, currently on at the Barbican and uncensored, would have read like is anyone’s guess since it’s mostly about unwelcome or illicit sexual relations.
The play, which has a place in the Me Too constellation, is a sexual and spiritual shocker. A seemingly upright government official, charged with cleaning up a depraved city, offers to save the life of a man condemned for making his fiancée pregnant only if his sister, a novice nun, sacrifices her virtue to him.
The RSC production stunningly places the story in fin de siècle Vienna, heart of the conservative Hapsburg empire but home to Sigmund Freud, Klimt, Arnold Schonberg, Wittgenstein: conventional and straight-laced on the surface but hiding a fermentable mix of repressed impulses.
Lucy Phelps brilliantly communicates the overly devout and quite heartless novice nun and single-handedly conveys the ambiguous note – with forced marriages and unanswered questions – on which the play ends. The denizens of the city’s whorehouses come across as more human and alive than those who run it. Strangely though, the actor playing Angelo, the governor put in charge of the city’s morals, does not always convey the menace of a deeply repressed individual. As a play about sexual hypocrisy, though, there is nothing like it in the Shakespeare canon.
If someone had taken me as a fifteen-year-old to the Globe’s production of Richard III at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, I’d have instantly become a Shakespeare groupie. The dour but popular history play, with its flat dialogue, creepy protagonist and familiar lines (‘Now is the winter of our discontent…. A horse! A horse. My kingdom for a horse) explodes with new life on the banks of the Thames.
Sophie Russell as the king, clearly not suffering from kyphosis, sings, dances and skateboards (and does an impressive Elvis impersonation) through child murder, assassination, betrayal and war.
Her performance is scintillating and the grim humour she invests in the text and action is perfect for a Richard who, after all, is essentially a stage villain. He is not one of Shakespeare’s more complex characters but the visceral energy behind his machinations and the complicity of those who serve him is represented with relish and flair.
The tiny candle-lit theatre on the banks of the Thames, its stage projecting out into the audience, teleports you away from the twenty-first-century city. This is Shakespeare as it was originally performed, though perhaps without the skateboard and sheets of plastic. For anyone who watched the massive star-studded BBC production, this props-scenery-costume-lite production is clarity itself. Richard is evil (but enormously good fun), the victims innocent, the murderers malevolent but hilarious and justice of a sort prevails in the end. The final battle scene, done with sticks and wafting banners is superb. Shakespeare would have laughed his doublet and hose off.