Theatre

Measure for Measure at the Barbican reviewed: a charity show for homesick non-doms

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

The smash hit Matilda, based on a Roald Dahl story, has spawned a copycat effort, The Twits. Charm, sweetness and mystery aren’t Dahl’s strong points. He specialises in suburban grotesques who commit infantile barbarities. But his prose is sensational. No ‘style’ at all, just the simplicity and clarity of a master copywriter. He’s as good as Orwell. Mr and Mrs Twit are a pair of malignant outcasts who enjoy tormenting innocents. They keep a family of monkeys in a cage and they glue birds to trees and shoot them. You can read the story in about 20 minutes. It probably took Dahl a bit longer than that to write. And Enda Walsh’s essay-crisis adaptation may have delayed him for a day or two. He supplements Dahl’s threadbare yarn with a tepid romance between a man and a monkey, and he adds a tussle for the ownership of a funfair, but this doesn’t fix the basic problem. The material doesn’t belong on stage. It lacks a central personality, a unifying mission and any sympathetic characters.

Chloe Lamford’s design is spectacularly grubby. Everything is as brown as the 1970s including Mr Twit’s mushroom-cloud beard, which moults bits of old food. The set is ingenious: a fat drum unfolds to reveal half a dozen concealed interiors. Nicely done but hardly worth the trip alone. Press night was an oddly cheerless affair. The progeny of the Critics’ Circle filled the pews. Much fidgeting, little guffawing. My son, aged 8, declared the show a triumph. But he kept up a barrage of comments and questions throughout, which suggests that his five-star verdict was a ploy to win him further outings.

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Gruesome twosome: Jason Watkins as Mr Twit and Monica Dolan as Mrs Twit

The Barbican has mounted a charity show. The purpose of Declan Donnellan’s Russian production of Measure for Measure is to brighten the spirits of London’s homesick non-doms. The theatre was packed with tear-stricken oligarchs, morose billionaires-in-exile and lonely have-yachts pining for their Black Sea dachas, their trusty serfs, and their Bolshoi jailbait.


The play is in two parts. Overhead on a small announcement board flashes the original text. Not easy to follow. Ten yards beneath appear the Russian actors plying their moves. Not hard to ignore. Everything is high-concept. Shakespeare’s 17th-century Vienna has been mysteriously taken over by Muscovite thugs who seem to have arrived from our own era. What a coincidence. The company enters the stage as a single organism with 32 legs. This eye-catching insect shuffles from one part of the arena to the other. Is it a chain gang, a vigilante mob, or a spot of scrum practice? Has there been a superglue spillage backstage? The luvvie-posse breaks up soon enough and the performance develops more naturally.

Theatre directors have been promulgating ‘jackboot Shakespeare’ since Mussolini’s day but always with mixed results. One actor, Andrey Kuzichev, has been chosen for his snaky, thin-lipped features. He’s Putin, right? So who are the others? Roman Abramovich? Viktor Onopko? Pussy Riot? Some artful flourishes enliven the final scenes. There are five crimson cubes on stage that swivel around to disclose images of depravity and abuse. Accordion music trills and the actors waltz prettily here and there. I confess I’m not a fan of Shakespeare in the wrong language. Adding time travel doesn’t clarify matters. And this is a tough play to like because the characters are a bunch of cold, proud, stroppy, vain, haughty, sadistic and manipulative monsters. All except Claudio, a lustful kid sentenced to die for being in love. Look at the rest. Angelo, a failed rapist, the Duke, a shifty voyeur. Isabella, an exhibitionist virgin. Asked to exchange her innocence for her brother’s life, she says no. Bolder spirits than me will find much to admire in this show but I hesitate to recommend two hours of theatrical cruelty with a linguistic obstacle course thrown in.

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London is about the first lady’s morale-boosting tour of Britain in 1942. Crossing the Atlantic was a huge risk but she wanted to show that the Allied leaders were ready to share the dangers of the common people. Alison Skilbeck, performing her own material, offers a fascinating portrait of wartime Britain and she does a fabulous impersonation of the Queen as a teenager: all bouncy, well-scrubbed, squeaky-voiced innocence. The Roosevelt’s marriage is also analysed. Eleanor was a weekend lesbian who had six kids with her faithless husband. He vowed to mend his ways. Later she learned he’d lied, and the discovery stung her into aphorism. ‘If you’re betrayed once, it’s his fault. Twice, it’s yours.’ When a rose was named after her, she was dismayed to find it described in a handbook as ‘no good in a bed but fine up against a wall’.

This touring show isn’t hugely dramatic but it’s a wonderfully illuminating slice of history. If it crests your horizon give it a look.

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