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Measure For Measure (1994)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Measure For Measure (1994)
For Performance, BBC, tx. 5/11/1994, colour, 111 mins
DirectorDavid Thacker
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducerPeter Cregeen
Script EditorMichael Hastings
DesignerBruce Macadie
MusicAdrian Johnston

Cast: Tom Wilkinson (The Duke); Corin Redgrave (Angelo); Juliet Aubrey (Isabella); Ben Miles (Claudio); Rob Edwards (Lucio); Ian Bannen (Provost); Sue Johnston (Mistress Overdone); Henry Goodman (Pompey)

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In a modern police state, a crackdown on public morality has potentially disastrous consequences for Claudio after he gets his girlfriend pregnant...

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The first Shakespeare production made for the BBC's Performance theatrical adaptation strand (1991-95), David Thacker's Measure for Measure (tx. 5/11/1994) took a very different approach from the BBC Television Shakespeare version (tx. 18/2/1979). That was in Renaissance costume, but this is set in the present day, a world where the sexual revolution of the 1960s is threatening the very foundations of... presumably Britain, since all verbal references to Vienna have been expunged from the text, along with much else (it runs more than half an hour shorter than its largely uncut predecessor).

The Duke (Tom Wilkinson) is first seen watching a bank of video screens depicting the lurid upshot of his liberal policies, and much use is made of CCTV throughout, both as a witty modern update of the play's numerous eavesdropping scenes, and also to reinforce the impression of an all-seeing police state. Angelo (Corin Redgrave) is a bureaucrat par excellence, dapper and efficient where the Duke is rumpled and haggard. If his very appearance indicates that things are about to change drastically, the cynical Provost (Ian Bannen) provides reassurance: he at least has seen many similar regimes come and go, while Henry Goodman's not-quite-placeable Mediterranean accent as Pompey the bawd evokes the Maltese/Italian connection with the Soho sex trade.

There's a much bigger age gap between Angelo and Isabella (Juliet Aubrey) than there was in the earlier version, which emphasises the play's overriding theme of the abuse of power. These scenes are creepily convincing, though offset by the slightly forced subplot involving the Duke's disguise: though Wilkinson adds an imaginative touch in giving his Catholic priest an Irish accent, it stretches credulity that such a figure would have much influence in what is otherwise a very modern police state.

However, the other contemporary parallels are all too telling. This production was aired towards the end of 1994, a year that began with a whole series of tabloid exposures of wayward politicians (following Prime Minister John Major's ill-advised "back to basics" speech at the previous year's Conservative Party Conference, widely interpreted as a call for a return to traditional morality) and went on to see the passage of the notorious Criminal Justice Act, which gave the police sweeping new powers. The play's opening scene, in which Mistress Overdone's premises are raided, would doubtless have been duplicated several times in real life on the Saturday night of the broadcast.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Claudio's arrest (3:56)
2. Angelo's offer (4:11)
3. The Duke's scheme (3:52)
Measure For Measure (1979)
Bannen, Ian (1928-1999)
Wilkinson, Tom (1948-)
1994 Criminal Justice Act
Measure For Measure On Screen
Shakespeare on Television