I’ve never seen M4M before on stage, though I have seen a couple of filmed productions including, inevitably, the BBC Shakespeare version. Possibly because I wasn’t fast-forwarding most of his scenes for the Isabella/Angelo stuff, I found the Duke much more compelling than previously. I note a couple of otherwise positive reviews suggest that Ben Miles’ presentation of the character was unfocussed – I felt rather the contrary, that his performance was terrific and that the production itself depicted not only the Duke, but also Angelo and Isabella as winging it far more than usual. The only character who really seemed to know what he was doing at all times was Lucio. Shakespeare’s Duke isn’t a “man with a plan”. His plot spirals out of control, disaster is averted only by luck*, and (in this interpretation) he ends up making a fool of himself with his final proposal. He isn’t the great ruler being cunning – if he were, he’d not have let things get into the mess. Like the other characters, the best he can hope for at the end is that he has learnt from his mistakes and will do better henceforth. Isabella (Anna Maxwell Martin) hasn’t got a clue how to go about pleading for Claudio’s life, nor to tell Claudio she hasn’t succeeded, and finds herself learning on the job, secure only in knowing that she does actually want to be a nun. A rather sweet and spoddy Angelo (Rory Kinnear) is simply pole-axed, first by elevation to power, then by love; a junior transport minister who suddenly finds himself captain of the national football team, a predator and tyrant who fumblingly inserting contact lenses before his second meeting with Isabella. The production was fairly low on kinkiness: I think it was Juliet Stevenson and her Angelo who I once read described as “copulating across the verse”, whereas Martin and Kinnear don’t project that kind of consciously repressed sexiness**. Rather, this stuff is new to them, and they don’t know how to handle it. The sleaziness of the brothels wasn’t quite there, but this was more than compensated for by a wonderfully spivvy Lucio (another revelation to me in terms of the character’s structural importance to the play) and bouncer-like Pompey in a too-tight belt.
In short, highly recommended.
*The death of Ragozine reminded me of the rolling revelations scene at the end of Cymbeline “My lord, I was that shepherd boy!”, which also reminds me how utterly brilliant Blackadded II is: “I was that sheep! Baa.” It also struck me that the novelization would definitely give the reader the scene in which Isabella accepts Angelo’s bargain, rather than merely reporting it.
**Though Ben Miles may have been rather dishy, even in a cowl.