First Night Review: Measure for Measure

Drunken debauchery. Sexual abandon. Chain smoking. Men in drag. Lady Gaga… what may be confused for any typical night at Park End is being transported, until Saturday night, to Keble’s O’Reilly theatre. Gnarled Oak’s production of Measure for Measure was strikingly contemporary and illuminating, breathing fresh life into one of Shakespeare’s less renowned plays.

The puritanical absolutism of Angelo was superbly juxtaposed against the unadulterated hedonism of Venice’s inhabitants, the resonant opera and pop ascribed to either side further highlighting the dichotomy. Matt Monaghan’s competent subversion of typical gender roles was particularly notable; what could initially have been considered an effort to counter notions of the submissive female, by presenting strong, vivacious women in all roles bar one, was subsequently undone, intensely so, by the end of the play, allowing patriarchy to triumph.

The proposal scene at the end of the play was simultaneously original, yet unnerving. Charlotte Salkind’s candid portrayal of Isabella was exceptional, it is a rare feat for a modern audience to simultaneously admire her feisty nature, and ultimately sympathise with her, instead of condemning her as cold and dogmatic. Lucio too was wickedly mischievous, unwavering in his grotesque charm as he was in his cigarette habit and despite being the only biological male amongst the cast, Jonnie McAloon’s performance was unashamedly bold and brazen.

1940’s Venice provides the perfect backdrop to the play. The use of the masque was particularly effective; from its signifying the adoption of a different persona in the carnival atmosphere of Mistress Overdone’s brothel; to it serving as the only thing separating Mariana from being discovered by Angelo as she performs the bed trick, allowing us to share with her the insecurity and anxiety she experiences.

Ironically, albeit somewhat obviously so, it is Angelo who never wears a physical masque, but the one who masquerades behind a facade of moral absolutism. It hides the unsettling use of violence towards Pompey, Claudio and Barnadine; as well as the prevailing despotic power, and nod to fascism, expounded in Angelo’s salutes. The violence, when coupled with Isabella’s being stripped to her underwear allows for a darker, and uncomfortably voyeuristic and sadistic experience – rendering the audience dangerously close to the depravity it so markedly condemns in Angelo.

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For a darker take on a problematic and troublesome play, Gnarled Oak’s production is both contemporary and ambitious.