This staging of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure from student production company Not The Way Forward Productions looks back to the future with a majority-female cast in 80s power suits, lending a Vienna thrown into chaos an intriguing corporate edge (overflowing waste paper baskets and tipped-over chairs abound). The play witnesses a ruthless Angelo tasked with stamping out the licentious activities of the corrupt city. He (or rather, in this instance, she) sentences Claudio to death on the charge that his not-yet wife has fallen pregnant. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, begs him to spare his sibling, but the despot makes Claudio’s release contingent on Isabella giving away her virginity to him. Grounding a play of perverted morals in the deceivingly benign climate of an office is a smart move. Indeed, Eliot’s objective correlative is manifested in a dictaphone which keeps the plot bouncing along, highly-strung as it is by director Dorothy McDowell who cuts away at the problem play to reveal a lean, high-stakes sequence of events. Think a venereal-ridden workplace where the boss insists on a more severe punishment for an office romance than simply producing a P45.
On taking my seat I am greeted by the blissful euphony which can only be generated by Careless Whisper played on an alto sax. These mellifluous tones, so welcome after a day of sonic bombardment from lectures, are produced by Gabriella Fitzgerald, who plays at turns Mariana and Claudio. Her gregariousness as characterised by those wood-wind instrumentals and snarky interjections are threatened by the unflinchingly merciless Angelo. Bella Stock does exceedingly well in embodying this character in all her icy mien, wielding barbed words as sharp as her frankly startling stare. Her torturous soliloquy and exchange with Madison Onsager’s Isabella in my view are the outstanding scenes in this production: the defiant Isabella pitched against a snarling Angelo who has had all humanity cauterised after working within a draconian system. Onsager rails against the corrupt system without resorting to bathos, convincingly arguing the case for exercising discretion in response to her brother’s unlawful but not wrongful behaviour. Someone else who does not abide by the law, but only to her credit, is Margot Worsley, who produces a nuanced portrayal of Mistress Overdone and thus avoids falling prey to any suggestion of nominative determinism.
Jack O’Hara plays the part of overworked office manager-cum-friar with ebullient expression, frenetic in movement and raspingly neurotic. It is perhaps only natural to sympathise with his desire to escape office life when you have the likes of Emily Hassan’s Lucio as a co-worker. Hassan very amusingly puts as much swaggering confidence as a Braggadocio into her role, declaring her entrances on stage in the most fabulous and least tactful manner possible. There is much comedy to be found here, especially when it produces barely concealed exasperation from an eye-rolling O’Hara. Lola Beal is the well-meaning but overlooked bureaucrat Escalus, possessing a rare voice of reason in this whirlwind of corruption and office intrigue. Beal more than holds her own amidst all the hysteria, something which is underpinned when she finds herself to be the last woman standing in the final scene, everyone else having disappeared in disgust at the depravity that the human race is so apt to husband. ‘Finally,’ her smile seems to say, ‘I can bring order to this stage. Books can be shelved. Files can be colour-coded.’ Until tomorrow night, of course, when the chaos is to be played out again. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
At Burton Taylor Studio until 8th February