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Measure For Measure On Screen

Adaptations and analyses of Shakespeare's complex morality play

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Perhaps the best example of a Shakespeare 'problem play', Measure for Measure is thought to have been written in 1603-4 and known to have been performed at the end of 1604. A complex, multi-layered essay on morality, responsibility and personal and political corruption, it has several dilemmas at its heart, the most famous being that of the luckless Claudio, sentenced to death for getting his unmarried girlfriend pregnant. His sister Isabella, a convent initiate, pleads with the flint-hearted Angelo, acting ruler of Vienna, only to be offered the unenviable option of surrendering to his lust and thereby committing a mortal sin.

Though never one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Measure for Measure has had several television adaptations, as well as an unusual number of separate programmes exploring its various themes. It was one of the first plays to be broadcast in full by the BBC, on 25 October 1937, though, in common with all such productions of that era, it was an unrecorded live broadcast and does not survive.

The next BBC broadcast came over forty years later, but was well worth the wait, as Desmond Davis' production for the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle (tx. 18/2/1979) was widely acclaimed as one of this uneven series' genuine triumphs. An intelligent, visually inventive treatment, adapted from an almost complete text, it also boasted a high-calibre cast, led by Kate Nelligan (Isabella), Tim Pigott-Smith (Angelo) and Kenneth Colley (The Duke), all of whom gave finely nuanced performances that emphasised their characters' moral complexity. The same evening, a 25-minute Shakespeare in Perspective documentary saw the play's themes being explored by John Mortimer, novelist, playwright and author of the previous year's ITV miniseries Will Shakespeare.

While the Davis production was broadly traditional, fifteen years later the play was given a very different treatment in the BBC's Performance series (tx. 5/11/1994). Adapted and directed by David Thacker, it was set in a recognisable present-day Britain, and the opening scene, with a visibly weary Duke (Tom Wilkinson) dejectedly watching a video montage of his city's moral decline, established both concept and tone. Though the text was heavily cut, the play's themes were presented intact, and the production was given further contemporary resonance by being broadcast in the wake of the highly controversial 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which gave the government powers similar to that enjoyed and exploited by Angelo (albeit stopping short of demanding the execution of those who have sex out of wedlock) as well as a very recent scandal over 'sleaze' in high places.

Ten years later, Measure for Measure was given a live broadcast (BBC, tx. 4/9/2004) from the reconstructed Globe Theatre, with a cast including Mark Rylance (the Duke), Sophie Thompson (Isabella), Liam Brennan (Angelo), Michael Bertenshaw (Escalus), Alex Hassell (Claudio) and Colin Hurley (Lucio). Screened close to the 400th anniversary of the play's first performance, John Dove's stage production sought to recreate the feel of an authentic Elizabethan stage treatment, which was further enhanced by an optional onscreen context-setting commentary by Shakespeare expert Professor Kiernan Ryan for those with the appropriate digital technology. Those who lacked a red button were offered an accompanying discussion presented by the BBC's then political editor Andrew Marr with contributions from Dove, actress Juliet Stevenson and historian David Starkey.

The play's themes were discussed in three further television programmes. Arts magazine Tonight in Town (BBC, tx. 25/5/1979) included an item on the Riverside Theatre production starring Helen Mirren (Isabella) and Paul Jones (Claudio). Excerpts from the performance were featured alongside an interview with the two leads, who discussed the play and their interpretation with theatre critic Michael Billington. A much more detailed examination of the play was conducted by director Michael Bogdanov for his series Shakespeare Lives (Channel 4, tx. 2 & 9/3/1983). A two-part, 50-minute National Theatre workshop, it saw Bogdanov staging individual scenes with actors Clive Arrindell, Suzanne Bertish, Michael Bryant, Joss Buckley, Dinsdale Landen and Bill Wallis, alongside a detailed dissection for the benefit of a live audience, whose contributions were encouraged. The overarching question concerned whether the play was a dated piece about an individual woman's dilemme or about a sinister chain of procurement, where no virtue is left untarnished. A decade later, The Shakespeare Laboratory (BBC2, tx. 17/10/1994) devoted 50 minutes to a similar workshop examination of the play, this time run by the Royal Shakespeare Company's then artistic director Adrian Noble with actors Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale, Joanne Pearce and other members of the company.


BBC, tx. 25/10/1937
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 18/2/1979, d. Desmond Davis
Performance, BBC2, tx. 5/11/1994, d. David Thacker
Live from the Globe, BBC4, tx. 4/9/2004, d. Janet Fraser Crook, Teresa Griffiths (from John Dove's stage production)

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 18/2/1979 , p. John Mortimer
Tonight in Town, BBC1, tx. 25/5/1979, p. Michael Billington
Shakespeare Lives, Channel 4, tx. 2 & 9/3/1983, p. Michael Bogdanov
The Shakespeare Laboratory, BBC2, 17/10/1994, p. Adrian Noble

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Measure For Measure (1979)

Measure For Measure (1979)

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Thumbnail image of Measure For Measure (1994)

Measure For Measure (1994)

Present-day update of the Shakespeare morality play

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