Stark stage design, evocative music, darkly humorous moments – Joe Hill-Gibbins’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure was certainly a Young Vic production: raw, sensual, smutty. Commonly conceived as Shakespeare’s most controversial play, the double entendre often present within his work provides a challenge for directors: is it a tragedy or a comedy? The majority of the lines can be read either way, providing two starkly different possibilities, though Hill-Gibbins manoeuvres around this with skill, the laughs providing a mask for a deeply unsettling sense of doom.
Beginning with a vast pile of blow-up dolls in the centre of the stage and deep red lighting to visually stimulate the hedonistic themes present within the play, the effect, initially laughable and slightly ridiculous, became sombre as the intention behind such design became clear. Inappropriate yet brutally honest, the dolls seemed intended to make us uncomfortable (several people even left soon after the beginning), to make us question the presence of visual sexuality onstage. Indeed, the effect was powerful, as one that physicalises the way society treated women and virtue – and the modernity of the costumes gave way for these sexual themes to apply to the present day.
What follows is a 75-minute exploration into true experimental theatre. Duke Vincentio, in disguise as Friar Lodowick, often holds a camera to other characters’ faces, particularly Claudio’s, giving the effect of invasion and interrogation as the close-ups are projected onto the back wall of the otherwise bare set. The back wall of the stage opens up to reveal a room serving as a prison, complete with table and wall clock, and when this ‘room’ is closed off, the camera and projections serve as a reminder that not all is as it seems behind closed doors.
I cannot commend any actor more than another; Romola Garai as Isabella takes us on an emotional journey wrought with despair, while Paul Ready stages a fantastic Angelo, epitomising the deceitful, hypocritical deputy of Vienna with eerie ease.
Though this adaptation of Measure for Measure is undeniably inappropriate for younger school years, it serves as a fantastic grounding for KS4-5 as a means of exploring new and exciting ways to stage old plays while also laying down Baz Luhrmann-like foundations for Shakespeare to be given the potential to be modernised. If I could give Hill-Gibbins’s version of Measure for Measure more than five stars, I would.