SHAKESPEARE’S engrossing rumination on the theme of absolute power corrupting in the city of Vienna is given an update of sorts in this powerful, watchable production.
We’re still in Vienna but we’ve been transported to the grand days of the 1900s. An opening waltz sets the tone and there are fine foppish coats and impressionist backgrounds to keep the flavour going. But this being the RSC, Vienna is a melting pot of humanity populated by – among others – a rather prurient Scotsman, a belligerent Ulsterman, an unhinged Welsh executioner and a laconic Caribbean chancer.
Given the chains of office while the boss is away, slightly-creepy Angelo quickly – and a little predictably – gets a taste for power and for the control it brings. Sentencing a man to death to flex his judicial muscles, he’s soon offering to trade a pardon for sexual favours from the condemned man’s sister Isabella.
The ensuing plots, counter plots and complex stratagems are clearly set out by a fine cast in the capable hands of director Gregory Doran. Antony Byrne’s Duke is strong and thoughtful, Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is nicely below-the-radar until the full extent of his repressed malice becomes apparent. There’s a splendidly foppish performance from Joseph Arkley as Lucio, whose route to a sticky end is paved with abundant fun and enjoyment.
But it’s the performance of Lucy Phelps as the virtuous and sorely-tested Isabella which really holds the production together and gives it its central questions. It’s a performance which handles the full range of emotions and always invites our sympathies.
Isabella’s dilemma – save another’s life or save your own virtue – is a fairly broad philosophical chestnut. How we react to it is as much a measure of the times we live in as anything else. In these me-too days of Berlusconi, Weinstein, Max Clifford et al, it’s hard not to side with the rights of the woman. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Women’s rights, and more importantly society’s fundamental acceptance of them, is a comparatively recent development. Its historical absence underpins Dickens, Austen and beyond. It’s the desperate situation which perhaps explains why Angelo’s wife forgives him his appalling behaviour and opts for a stable but loveless marriage.
The play’s ambiguous end is beautifully handled. Having witnessed the Duke dispensing what passes for restorative justice – and plainly enjoying every moment of it – we’re only a grateful embrace away from the night’s happy ending. Only it isn’t. The Duke’s somewhat ‘droit de seigneur’ proposal of marriage leaves Isabella dumbstruck. Having been delivered from subjugation at the hands of a man’s will once she’s immediately faced by another such predicament.
What men are prepared to grab through ill-use of power is, it seems, not a lot different from what they decide to achieve through the veneer of beneficence. Power is power, it would seem, and those who don’t have it are powerless in more ways than one.