A bawdy whirl in Vienna with plenty of sauce
Set in brothel-ridden 1900s' Vienna, this production succeeds in delivering on cheeky, lewd humour while maintaining the feelings of unease which have helped categorise it as a ‘problem play’.
Under Gregory Doran’s direction, the sexual deviance and bawdiness of the play are delightfully realised in scenes littered with comedy and clever stage production, but the themes of crumbling authority and hypocrisy which underpin the narrative are constant throughout.
The Duke at no point is presented as regal - the scruffy friar’s attire complements Antony Byrne’s roguish performance as a man who finds his authority through deceit and the use of sex as a weapon (albeit to thwart he slippery Angelo), and he commands the stage on most occasions.
The interactions between the Duke and the louche Lucio (excellently portrayed by the dapper Joseph Arkley whose comic timing and instincts helped elevate most scenes he appeared in) are a particular highlight performed with a ‘nudge nudge’ humour and subtle touch which gives this production its charm.
Similarly, the scenes with Pompey and Elbow are impossible not to raise a smile to as David Ajao and Michael Patrick get every laugh they can out of crude interactions full of innuendo and ribald language.
While the bawdiness and lewd behaviour serves to delight there are darker, more malicious forces at work, as Sandy Grierson’s awkward looking Angelo exercises his newly gained power to wage war against the sexual deviancy to which he eventually falls victim. Grierson’s portrayal here is interesting as we see Angelo physically punish himself for harbouring ‘impure’ sexual thoughts and appear apologetic, shrunken, and rather pathetic in shape which works well to highlight the hypocrisies for which he is guilty, and strip him of authority.
The performance of Lucy Phelps as Isabella is heartfelt and the character seems to retain a modicum of chastity which is otherwise absent, her denunciation of the authority of men feeling very appropriate and socially relevant.
If there is anywhere this performance doesn’t shine it is in one or two scenes during the middle of the first half in which the action seems very static and could maybe use an injection of energy, but a fast-paced and laughter-filled second half is enough to ensure the audience is sent home smiling.
Above::David Ajao and Joseph Arkley, as Pompey and Lucio
Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC.