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When the Duke of Vienna takes a mysterious leave of absence and leaves the strict Angelo in charge, things couldn't be worse for Claudio, who is sentenced to death for premarital sex. His sister, Isabella (a nun-in-training), however, is a very persuasive pleader. She goes to Angelo, but instead of freeing her brother, she gets an offer from Angelo to save Claudio's life if Isabella sleeps with him. The only sympathetic friend Isabella has is a priest who, in actuality, is the Duke in disguise...and he has a plan. Written by
Made-For-Television Classic; Kate Nelligan in a Play of Ideas
Back in the 1970s, someone in England had the extraordinary idea of producing a made-for-television version of all the plays attributed to The Shakespearean Poet, who hid behind the name and person of "William Shakespeare". The idea was hubristic and more than a bit silly, since the usual practice in such an undertaking would be to produce an "all-star" version"--casting the best actors available for each part as Herbert Von Karajan tried to do when he recorded versions of famous operas for posterity. In this case, the choice of actors often seemed to be based on no discernible nor announced purpose; and the result was filmed versions of 37 plays which were extraordinarily uneven in quality, with many lines being read by youthful actors lacking classical training and/or ability. The best of all these version, in many ways, for actors and writers alike I believe to have been "Measure For Measure". Those seeking the true identity of "Shakespeare" could do worse, I suggest, than by starting with the fact that the playwright set three plays in 'Bohemia', which he must have visited to gain the knowledge of its constitution he showed, that he was fundamentally a Medieval not a Renaissance mentality and that by his writing's complexity, length and contexted idea-quality he was obviously over forty-five years of age when he began writing for the public stage in 1590. Bohemia was a kingdom independent under a moralistic government as early as 1530. Here it offered the playwright a chance to demonstrate the difference between personal belief and an enforced religious puritanism which lacked all the qualities of a true religion and none of those of an authoritarian dictatorship. The play involves a seemingly virtuous fellow, Angelo, who with the city's leader gone, is in charge in his place--even though he is being tested by that worthy without knowing this is so, for the leader remains to watch his course of action. His major problem involves young Claudio, who violates a statute by impregnating one Mariana outside of wedlock. He is willing to marry here, happy to do so, except that he has been clapped into jail and is awaiting execution. Isabella, his sister, speaks for him, with great effect; too great, since the future nun is propositioned by Angelo--he will spare her brother if she will let him make love to her. The effects of this triangle, as the cowardly Claudio begs his sister to submit, becomes dramatically tense. Will the Duke step forward and intervene? Will Angelo relent? Will Isabella surrender herself? Will Claudio be murdered by the iron letter of the law/ The plot is unusually strong, of course; and most everything is resolved by the ending. But the revelation of the difference between true faith, the monastic sort, which even agnostics can admire in Isabella and the puritanical-dictatorial pseudo-religion of Angelo which is worldly, divisive and totalitarian and utterly impractical is revealed here very clearly...A word of caution to post-1994 sufferers from theocratic pretensions from the Renaissance's minds is strongly spoken by the Shakespearean Poet here. This is unarguably largely a photographed stage play; but some minor dialogue has been excised, some clever camera-work introduced; and the production's entire middle section moves along quite effectively--the internal "dream sequence" between the exposition and first statement and the resolution of a theatrical work often works well with a bit of trimming when a play is translated into cinematic space-time events. Odette Barrow's costumes are good and Stuart Walker's production design is unobtrusive and serviceable at all points. Desmond Davis directed the production and by any standard I know his work appears to have been admirable by its results. Kate Nelligan's impersonation of Isabella is award-caliber and a lasting tribute to her dramatic ability. She is tragic, sweet, intelligent, sympathetic and desirable all at once. As Angelo, Tim Piggot-Smith does quite well in a difficult part for a young act; his intelligence and his ability to read a good one-liner serve him well. As Claudio, Christopher Strauli gets a good deal out of a part that in lesser hands can be repetitive. As the comical Pompey "The Great", Frank Middlemass has his finest cinematic part ever. Kenneth Colley is likable and interesting as the watchful Duke who tests Angelo, and as Escalus Kevin Stoney has a difficult part filled with reactions, remonstrations and nuances which he handles very professionally by my standards. Others in the cast include Adrienne Corri as Mistress Overdone, Eileen Page as Francesca, Yolanda Vasquez as Juliet, Jacqueline Pearce as the long-suffering Mariana, John Mcenery as Lucio and several more, all well-cast and more than adequate to their tasks. This is an attractive production which I find to be interesting as an ethical and moral question and well-paced as a realization of the playwright's intention. of all the series of BBC Shakespearean productions, this is the one I regard as the most cinematic and the most successful. I recommend it to the viewer whenever it is shown, if only for Kate Nelligan's lovely achievement.
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