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Measure For Measure (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Measure For Measure (1979)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 18/2/1979, colour, 145 mins
DirectorDesmond Davis
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerStuart Walker
MusicJohn Tyler, London Early Music Ensemble

Cast: Kenneth Colley (The Duke); Kate Nelligan (Isabella); Tim Pigott-Smith (Angelo); Christopher Strauli (Claudio); John McEnery (Lucio); Jacqueline Pearce (Mariana); Frank Middlemass (Pompey); Alun Armstrong (Provost)

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The Duke of Vienna charges his deputy Angelo with maintaining order in his absence. Angelo decides to enforce the city's strict moral code, which has possibly fatal consequences for Claudio - unless his sister Isabella can persuade Angelo to reprieve him.

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The fifth broadcast in the 37-play BBC Television Shakespeare project, Measure for Measure was also its first unqualified critical hit and remains one of the best-regarded productions of the entire cycle. It was also one of the first to offer a truly convincing demonstration of how effective Shakespeare could be on the small screen, with cameraman-turned-director Desmond Davis striking a perfect balance between intimacy and grandeur.

Though the production values aren't noticeably higher than for the other plays in the first series, the staging is generally more imaginative, with a particularly vivid evocation of the brothel and the jail (Davis said that he wanted to create the feel of, respectively, a Western saloon bar and a garish horror film). This invention is maintained up to the final scene, when the play's multiple denouements are presented on a raised wooden stage, very similar to the way the play would have been presented at its 1604 premiere, and wittily drawing attention to the theatricality of the play's whole conception.

Rightly, the production is more intimate in the two pivotal scenes between Angelo and Isabella, but even then Davis' use of screen space is a crucial part of his staging, with Angelo initially framed so that he dwarfs Isabella, but she gradually ends up on equal terms, to underscore her increasing hold on him. He is helped by finely nuanced performances from Tim Pigott-Smith and Kate Nelligan. Clad in virginal white throughout, Nelligan exudes so much deeply-felt conviction (producer Cedric Messina said that the qualities that secured her the role were "strength, coolness and beauty") that her very presence shames Angelo, as well it should.

Aside from these scenes, the production is dominated by Kenneth Colley's twinkling Duke, the Machiavellian manipulator of the play's complex plot - so much so that it's somewhat jarring that Isabella agrees to marry him so readily at the end (this is left ambiguous in the text), since he has very publicly confessed not only to deceiving her but also manipulating her emotions. Of the lesser roles, Christopher Strauli and Jacqueline Pearce are affecting as Claudio and Mariana, each separately wronged by Angelo, while comic relief is shared between John McEnery's flamboyantly foppish Lucio and Frank Middlemass' buffoonish Pompey.

As for textual fidelity, the brief Act IV Scene V was dropped altogether, but elsewhere there were only very minor trims: this is one of the more complete BBC Shakespeares.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Isabella's first plea (4:37)
2. In Claudio's cell (4:06)
3. A deadly deception (3:18)
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