Timeless truths in modern garb

21st May 2004 at 01:00
MEASURE FOR MEASURE. National Theatre, Olivier. (part of the Travelex pound;10 season) from May 17, in rep Tel: 020 452 3000

HAMLET. The Old Vic until July 31. Tel: 0870 060 6628

Heather Neill considers the complexities of sexuality and morals in two Shakespeare plays

Simon McBurney of Complicite, who is directing Measure for Measure in modern dress, says that of course it is the subject of authority and the abdication of responsibility in the play that is fascinating and has many resonances for all time, but it is sexuality which drives the story.

The Duke of Vienna, worried about the prevailing moral laxity, goes among his subjects disguised as a friar, having put his apparently buttoned-up deputy Angelo in charge.

Angelo introduces a draconian regime under which Claudio, who has made his future wife pregnant prematurely, faces the death penalty. When Claudio's sister, Isabella, a postulant, comes to plead for him, Angelo is overwhelmed by desire and promises Isabella her brother's life in exchange for sleeping with him.

Although she is horrified and refuses, McBurney says: "She is an extremist, as he is, so in a sense they are made for each other: they spark off each other." The Duke stage-manages a resolution, but McBurney says this is not a simple happy ending as nothing is certain: we are left to wonder whether relationships will work, whether people have what they desire. "There is a balance at the end, which is why the title is so appropriate. It is less about just desserts than a kind of suspension; the play goes on beyond the end of the play."

A major theme, says McBurney, is "who is being what at any moment". Many characters play-act, adopting or being forced into unaccustomed roles as the plot requires. There are no simply "good" characters; everyone is complicated. Even the Duke always makes the end justify the means and uses Claudio's supposed death to get close to Isabella.

Down the road from the National, a young actor is making an extraordinary debut. Ben Whishaw takes the title role in Trevor Nunn's exhilaratingly modern youth-orientated production of Hamlet. Looking like an anorexic teenager, Whishaw makes sense of Hamlet's self-absorption, his attention-seeking and inability to comprehend relationships.

Disgust at parental sexuality and the attractions of suicide ring true for a Hamlet young enough to be paired with a pop-mad schoolgirl Ophelia (19-year-old Samantha Whittaker).

Imogen Stubbs is a lustful, glamorous Gertrude driven to drink who, despite her selfishness, still tries to mother her unbalanced son. This Hamlet will resonate with students' own experience while also illuminating the text.

* There will also be productions of Measure for Measure at the Globe and of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre later in the summer.

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