I'd forgotten just how funny Measure for Measure can be. Dominic Dromgoole's music-and-dancing, panto-esque production reminds us why anyone ever thought to include the text among the Comedies in the First Folio of 1623 (a categorisation baffling to modern audiences). This darkest of plays usually leaves audiences retching into their sick bags from hard-hitting portrayals of themes like prostitution, rape, political corruption, capital punishment, dictatorship and espionage, to name but a few. But here it's the so-called minor, comic characters who take centre stage throughout, from brothel-keeper Mistress Overdone to flamboyant turncoat Lucio (the superb Brendan O'Hea) to the publican-pimp Pompey, whose surname alone has everyone in stitches: “Bum, sir,” Trevor Fox's character replies sheepishly when asked, milking the groundlings for as many laughs as possible.
Arrive early, because the partying starts in the standing area before the play begins. Dominic Rowan's jovial Duke Vincentio of Vienna secretly disguises himself as a monk (in a ridiculous orangey fake tonsure) to see for himself if his subjects' love of debauchery has got out of hand, and also to spy on his henchmen's use or abuse of the power he bestows on them in his 'absence'. His puritanical deputy Angelo (a restrained, almost flat Kurt Egyiawan), appears to be an angel on the outside though is anything but, ordering trainee nun Isabella (Mariah Gale) to have sex with him in order spare the life of her brother Claudio (Joel MacCormack), who's on death row for adultery.
The Duke in his chuckle-inducing monk's fancy-dress witnesses most of the action on stage, which is hammed up for all it's worth. Whores may, troublingly, get carted off to prison in wheelbarrows during the crackdown on vice – and even branded on the cheek with a red hot poker – but they also fall out again laughing in fits of hysterics and claim the upper hand. There's plenty of fun, too, to be had with Constable Elbow and his “fishy wife.” It all comes across more as a parody of Undercover Boss than satire of a terrifying Orwellian police state, an interpretation favoured in other productions of recent years (compare the bleak 1994 film version starring Tom Wilkinson as the Duke, for example, which all but strips out the comedy).
The cost of this fun approach is that the comedy ultimately wins out (triumphantly) over the famous 'problem' aspects of Measure for Measure. The contradictions in Angelo and Isabella's characters do come across, but without deeper psychological investigations that would undermine enjoyment of the entertainment being offered. Similarly, this Duke is ultimately a fun-loving, dazzlingly dressed all-round-nice-cad – mainly. Certainly not some demented psychopath. Stay home and watch the Wilkinson version on DVD if you prefer this play to seriously disturb.
Three hat-tips must go to Claire van Kampen's musical score which buoys the mood from start to finish, Siân Williams' upbeat choreography, and the costumes, which range from Caliban-like mucky rags to glittering (and amusingly gaudy) doublets and hose.