MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Library Theatre, Manchester.
While the main theme of Measure for Measure can be summed up by biblical phrases such as "Judge not, that ye be not judged", Shakespeare's play can also be seen as a powerful study in what director Chris Honer calls "the important issues of the year 2000: questions about individual and public justice, and of good government and political corruption".
The plot certainly poses moral conundrums. Set in a vice-ridden Vienna, it explores what happens when the apparently virtuous Angelo is appointed by the city's Duke to clean up the place in his absence.
After Angelo sentences Claudio to death for sexual misconduct, Claudio's sister, Isabella, intercedes on his behalf, and Angelo offers to pardon him in exchange for her virginity. Should she accept? Or allow her brother to die? To clarify these issues, Honer has set the play in modern times, in a place which "suggests a middle-European location, which might be a sex capital".
Instead of quaint Elizabethan bawdy or Victorian naughtiness, he wants to emphasise the fact that prostitution is a "serious social problem" and that Vienna has been corrupted by the commercialisation of sex.
"Budget permitting," Honer says, "we will use video, both to suggest the idea of surveillance and to show sex channels on television." Updating the play to modern times also gives him an excuse to cut lines referring to the war with Hungary and to subsitute "robes which suggest a Buddhist sect" for the traditional friar's garb used by the Duke as a disguise.
The Duke is central to the play - he has the first word and the last, and orchestrates the action. Honer sees him as "having an element of manipulation about him", trying to control (in the best Blairite manner) both government and morality. With both Angelo and Isabella, there is the problem of bringing out the contradictions of their characters. To be interesting, Angelo must be more than a simple hypocrite.
"What you have to remember," says Honer, "is that he has a past. He has broken off his engagement to Mariana because she has no money, which suggests that he values wealth more than love."
But if the idea of a politician who's greedy is readily comprehensible, how will a modern audience understand Isabella and her preference for chastity over her brother's life? "I'd like to bring out the idea of a woman's control over her own body," says Honer. Isabella's motives have less to do with priggishness, than with being allowed to make her own choices.
But if a modern-dress production of Measure for Measure can suggest the squalor of Viennese society, it cannot improve on Shakespeare in understanding the reason for Angelo's attraction to Isabella. "Angelo is turned on by Isabella's passionate advocacy," says Honer, but desire is ultimately blind.
From February 4 to March 4. Tickets: 0161 236 7110