MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Royal Shakespeare Company. Stratford-upon-Avon.
Director Michael Boyd sets his production of Measure for Measure in turn-of-the-century eastern Europe: "I just cannot bear the thought of doing yet another Renaissance play in Renaissance costume - I've done so many in a row".
But Boyd has more cogent reasons for his fin de siecle Austro-Hungarian setting: "There are echoes of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, and Balkan instability. Our Vienna is part prison, part brothel, in the sense that it's some kind of purgatory, a place of revolutionary change for society and individuals".
That sense of social and spiritual transformation is the key to Boyd's production. "Every character in the play is affected in some radical way, from the Duke right down to Pompey."
Boyd's Duke therefore "feels uncomfortable in his royal role in his full star-and-garter regalia. When he's unmasked at the end, he's a simple man in trousers and shirt, all the accretions of magnificence gone.
"He's like Gorbachev getting off the plane after the coup. It's going to be a showdown, because Angelo, backed by his Republican Guard, is not willing to give up power. The Duke wants no more autocracy, and he literally begs and prays Bernadine to join him on his knees."
That willingness to inject unexpected dramatic episodes into Shakespeare's script characterises Boyd's approach. "I've radically altered the first scene, and re-edited the last. But I'm not telling you how!" He is less reticent about other changes. "I've cut the single song in the play, 'Take, oh take those lips away', because I've a better idea. Angelo has cleaned up Vienna, actually stripping away all the hangings, chandeliers, pictures. The only thing he leaves is a piano, which he plays as he attempts to seduce Isabella. At the moated grange, Mariana is seen listening to that same music on an old phonograph."
Boyd's Isabella is no weak hysteric. "She's an extremely well-born young womanwho has made a decision that the best way to live is to react against the materialism and corruption of Vienna, and fully embrace the spiritual life by marrying Christ, rather thana man.
"At the moment when her brother reveals his life can be saved if she gives up her chastity, she feels that she is fighting with the Devil, head on."
A problem play? Boyd is sceptical of enigmatic endings - will she, won't she, accept the Duke's offer of marriage? "Isabella goes through a massive sea-change. She realises early on that she's physically attracted to the DukeFriar, and the ending shows clearly that she is in love with him."
Boyd trained in Moscow. "One of the main lessons I learnt from my Russian experience is the political potential of theatre. This Measure is politically articulate, not by satirising contemporary British politics, but in showing how power is at stake at every level, and the cruelty that men inflict on women".
Boyd's intention is to show how the personal and spiritual concerns of the play are rooted in its social and political setting. It promises well for students' learning as they argue over his imaginative staging of Shakespeare's searing portrayal of justice, hypocrisy and sexual blackmail.
'Measure for Measure' opens on April 30. Box office: 01789 295623