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Put to the test

Sean Holmes sets his version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in middle Europe after the Second World War. Aleks Sierz reports

MEASURE FOR MEASURE. By William Shakespeare. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

With its title coming from the "Judge not, that ye be not judged" passage in Christ's Sermon on the Mount, Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's problem plays: is it a black comedy or a tragedy with funny moments? For RSC director Sean Holmes, "there is a deep seriousness to the play, although you also laugh despite that". It "constantly subverts our expectations - it has a deep absurdity".

Set in a vice-ridden Vienna, the play shows what happens when the apparently virtuous Angelo is appointed by the city's Duke to clean up the place in his supposed absence. The Duke pretends to go on a journey but returns disguised as a friar. After Angelo sentences Claudio to death for sexual misconduct, Claudio's sister, Isabella, intercedes on his behalf, and Angelo offers to pardon him in return for sex with her. What should she do?

Its absurdity, says Holmes, arises from the fact that the Duke never "really explains what he is doing. Shakespeare seems to be deliberately provoking the audience to ask lots of questions - but without giving simple answers". He shows "how we invest in authority" in a "state which is in limbo, perceived by its rulers to be corrupt, and which then has to be cleansed by Angelo, who is also corrupt".

Holmes's version is set in middle Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. "There's something very modern about the play - a world of war, poverty, illness, threat and punishment. So we've set it in that period just before reconstruction when you could buy somebody with a packet of cigarettes."

What do we make of Isabella's decision to sacrifice her brother rather than her virginity? "Shakespeare puts her into that position, but he is also saying that no one should have to make such a choice - everyone watching will have a different opinion about her decision," says Holmes.

He doesn't believe that Shakespeare's audience thought she was simply doing the right thing. A response such as "'What the hell's going on?' is not necessarily a bad one". What you have to remember is that "Isabella's decision to go into a nunnery is a response to the restrictions on women in Elizabethan society". If a woman wasn't a maid, a wife or a widow, she was nothing.

The options for women were "limited - it's a very male play. Women have to struggle to make their voices heard". For Holmes, the reason for doing the play is that "it's about how one retains an honesty and purity in a world that is corrupt and venal. That's why it's relevant - it's about decisions that we make and how they impact on other people".

Measure for Measure is in rep from April 24 to November 4. Education events include talks by the director (April 30) and members of the creative team (June 13, 19 and 23). Box office: 0870 609 1110

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