Review – Measure for Measure – Almeida Theatre

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When the Independent’s ecstatic review for the Almeida‘s Measure for Measure wound up in front of my eyes on my morning commute, I was completely sucked in. Woo, a Shakespeare play I hadn’t seen at a venue that consistently produced great shows! I figured with the five stars behind it it was going to sell out quickly, so I got my tickets that day and hunkered down for my chance to see it.

As it turns out, at 15 pounds (each) for a supposedly blocked view in the back of the house, my tickets were a very good deal (and ten times more comfy than the barstools at the Southwark Playhouse’s Henry V). The show featured the kind of acting that I’ve come to see as the standard in London, led by the on-top-of-his-game Rory Kinnear as Angelo, who could have been any right-wing politician currently gracing the front pages of American newspapers. The story of a man who promotes himself to others for his sterling reputation, attempts to enforce his morality, then falls “victim” to the sins he claims to want to stamp out is apparently far older than I had ever guessed. In fact, it’s the sharpness of this drama – much like the Donmar’s “fear the power of the papers” Dollhouse – that made this show seem so relevant. The language was thick at times, but the story was 100% now.

But the drama of a sister trying to save her brother from death, well, that cranked it up a big notch. Anna Maxwell Martin seemed a bit stiff as Isabella, somewhat overprone to holding her hands, but she was playing a woman who was a few days away from becoming a nun, and she did have a lot of begging to do to try to keep her brother Claudio (Emun Elliott) from being beheaded for (snicker) fornication. Oddly, no one seems concerned that he’s about to leave his girlfriend behind to take care of their soon-to-be-born child, but I was aware – every minute that Isabella attempted to convince Claudio that it was better to die that to live without honor – there was a lot more at stake than her virginity. Yeah, if she gave in to Angelo, she’d lose her job as a nun, but sister-outlaw Juliet would have a lifetime of struggles in a society not very supportive of unmarried moms.

Amidst all this, Vincentio (Ben Miles), the duke, the man whose departure has put Angelo in charge, wanders, talking to people about “the state of the kingdom” and what they think of him. His performance is fine but flat; as a character, he is static and just not nearly as interesting as Angelo. He also gets burdened with most of the long speeches in this play; it seemed nearly every time that I checked out mentally because I wasn’t able to make sense of the language, Vincentio was talking.

Despite the occasional lags, this was a consistently top-notch performance in a delightfully intimate space, with sets that were both inventive and deliciously flexible. As we walked out of the theater talking about the performance in great detail, we all agreed on one thing; we are spoiled by the quality of theater London offers, and the current production at the Almeida wonderfully shows off just how good we’ve got it.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 2:30 PM on Saturday, March 13th. Measure for Measure closes Saturday, April 10th, 2010. For a compilation of reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com. I’d be surprised if there were any tickets left, so be sure to call and ask for returns, or pity.)

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