Shakespeare knew. Sex sells. When you want to talk to the masses about the hot topics of the day -“ like social justice, corruption and moral honesty -“ use sex. It sells.
His darkly humorous venture into the pimping world of prostitutes and corrupt government officials is both timeless and contemporary -“ because sex, politics and corruption never disappear. During Thatcher’s reign, Measure For Measure was the most performed Shakespearean play in the UK. No surprise then that Measure For Measure should ring bells here as John Howard’s conservatives muscle in on our civil liberties.
Measure For Measure slips through the dank streets, brothels and prisons of a vice-ridden Vienna. The Duke (Sean O’Shea) tests the honesty of his deputy Angelo (Luke Stollery) when he leaves him in charge. But the Duke doesn’t leave Vienna. He dons a monk’s robe and waits to see what happens.
Meanwhile, Angelo -“ a sort of Tony Abbott affiliate -“ decides to clean up the town by enforcing a law against fornication. He arrests Claudio (Timothy Walter), a nice guy who unfortunately got his fianc?up the duff. Claudio’s sister Isabella (Tamsin Carroll), a novice nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother. Lust clouds Angelo’s mind. He offers to pop Isabella’s cherry in return for her brother’s life. The eavesdropping Duke suggests to Isabella a bed trick which will save both her brother and her virginity. It’s deliciously dirty and funny to boot.
Robert Kemp’s lush production design relocates Measure For Measure‘s bawdy Vienna to present-day Sydney -“ King’s Cross to be precise -“ site of the city council’s battle to clean out the sex industry. Sex oozes from every pornographic poster and every overfull garbage bin.
Director John Bell also localises the comedy: the pimp Pompey (Darren Gilshenan) could be Con the Fruiterer’s son; brothel owner Mistress Overdone (Gracy Lears) is a drag queen past her use by date, and the dandy Lucio (Matthew Moore) leaps about in vermilion stovepipes, like a reject from Arq spouting malicious gossip about the Duke to the ruler in disguise. These are familiar portraits that draw easy chuckles from the audience but overall, while the performances are solid, they are lacklustre, aside from Tamsin Carroll’s whistleblower nun.
For all its fun, Measure For Measure is deliberately unsettling, its exploration of the corruptibility of power more tragic than comic. While the Duke thinks he has his citizens’ best interests at heart, he plays them like a cat with mouse. They suffer torment as he uses them as pawns to uncover Angelo’s double standards. He thinks he can -“ with a snap of his powerful fingers -“ right all wrongs. This makes the unresolved conclusion startling, but all the more satisfying than the happy endings of Shakespeare’s comedies.