This show marked the first appearance of the Peter Hall Company at the RSC– Peter Hall being the artistic director who founded the modern RSC back in the day. There was therefore a lot of prestige and expectation behind this production, the first major non-RSC event to be staged at the Courtyard Theatre.
It looked wonderful- sweeping lights, a massive reflective wall, secret doors opening and lavish Jacobean costumes that evoked a dark and ambivalent period for the play. The nobles wore Fawksian hats and beards that made everyone look just a little bit suspicious, echoing the play’s themes of deceit.
This was a dark reading of the play, the comedy reserved for a fantastic Michael Mears as a wonderfully camp and motormouthed Lucio, and a very funny Edward Bennett as Elbow. Moody scenarios, slow and serious delivery and a sombre ending meant that this production was no comedy, but a very serious drama.
Ultimately, it left me cold. Despite an aggressive near-assault on Isabella, Angelo never seemed quite evil enough to despise, and Isabella herself was po-faced and self-righteous, a very hard reading of the heroine. Even the Duke seemed to take a background role in his own machinations, only really coming into his own in the final scene. All of which can work well in what is essentially a play about people politics, but here there didn’t seem to be any overriding concern, or moral judgment, or even an interest in anyone’s fate.
It’s a shame, in a production that was so well-spoken and large-scale, but there was very little to hold an audience’s interest- and indeed, one girl opposite me slept through most of the second half. While perhaps staying true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s problem play by not giving any clear answers, Hall seemed to opt not to have us care about several conflicting characters, but instead to have us care about no-one. Only Lucio really enlivened the stage, and the marked shift in the audience when it came to his fate in the final scene was a telling sign as to where the audience’s interest lay.
Despite this, there were some very nice moments- the extended silence after the Duke’s proposal truly brought out the awkwardness of the moment, as did the Duke’s slow walk offstage alone at the end of the play while everyone stared after him. Moments such as this were few and far-between though. It was by no means a bad production, simply one that faded from memory almost as soon as I watched it, which is never a good sign.