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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
In "Measure for Measure," Shakespeare gives us no character as an entry point to this acid discussion of justice vs. mercy, religious faith and hypocrisy. Virginity, assaults thereon and reputations at stake are once again pivotal questions. The low comedy characters, often tedious irrelevancies in other plays, are here in the bordello trade, and for once their stories resonate with the main narrative.
We must consider "Measure for Measure" as a comedy, since all the characters live and many of them marry at the end, yet we as an audience are not really allowed to get comfortable at the twisty conclusion. The dramatic resolution is strangely prolonged and the aftertaste is a queasy one. I doubt this is the favorite play of all that many admirers of the Bard.
That being said, this video is a very satisfying production. The director, Desmond Davis, keeps the pace up at all times - there is no flagging of energy or movement. The visuals are unfamiliar compared to others in the series that deliberately reference Old Master paintings. Yet the images are uniformly precise, effective and gratifying to behold.
A word of admiration for the tracking shots of characters walking down the endless streets of Vienna. The television studio configuration is often the set constructed at one end and the camera observing at the other. However, for this day's shooting, the street set was constructed in a circle hugging the four walls of the studio, with cameras and cast walking around inside it. Nicely done.
The cast is almost uniformly satisfying. Kate Nelligan, who has been known to be dreary on some occasions, brings off perfectly the goodness and persuasiveness of Isabella, without ever becoming sanctimonious or annoying. Tim Pigott-Smith excels as the predatory hypocrite Angelo, an ancestor of his memorable Captain Merrick in "The Jewel in the Crown." John McEnery as the loudmouth dandy Lucio, Frank Middlemass and Adrienne Corri as the bawds deserve special mention. A highlight is Christopher Strauli's finely calibrated jailhouse speech, in which Claudio first commends his sister's decision not to save his life by giving in to sexual blackmail, and gradually decides that he loves living enough that perhaps she should disgrace herself after all.
A major theme in the whole BBC series is bringing Shakespearian speech down to conversational volume for TV, after centuries of ritualized shouting in theaters. Kenneth Colley as the manipulative Duke almost takes it too far, as his language sometimes descends to liquid baritoning at the expense of diction. He also moves his head too much for the camera, eyes rolling and skull oscillating from side to side.
According to Susan Willis's book, Colley was the 32nd actor approached for the part, the first choice being Alec Guinness, but then you can't always get what you want. Between extended rehearsal schedules and unimpressive money, casting this whole series must have been a mammoth exercise in frustration.
However, these are minor annoyances in the scheme of things. All in all, major cheers for an excellent production of a disquieting play.
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