National Theatre, Lyttelton, co-production with Complicté. Directed by Simon McBurney, and with McBurney as the Duke
A truly fine, clear, spare production of the play, accomplished in two hours and fifteen minutes without an intermission. Modern dress, aided and abetted by a good deal of modern technology, including closed-circuit television, interview-style microphones, and so on. The production has begun to fade somewhat from my memory — it is now March 22, four days later — but my overall impression is of a company beautifully rehearsed to do split-second timing of everything — not overly hurried, simply right on the mark. These actors are a true ensemble; they know one another well, even intimately, it would seem.
The Angelo, Angus Wright, is played as a deeply repressed man, who is turned on despite himself by the very saintliness of Isabella (Naomi Frederick), whose very innocence allows her to take liberties of speech, behavior, and body language that perversely result in Angelo’s becoming overcome with lust for her.
The action of the play is very lucidly enacted, in a rapid, headlong run toward the brilliant, long Act V with which the play comes to its end and in which all the ethical problems raised by the play assert themselves, leaving us with more questions than answers. The Duke’s offer of marriage to Isabella is, and has been for a very long time, problematic. In this production McBurney’s Duke insists on it, and moves upstage with a large gesture that causes a curtain to open, revealing a bed strewn with roses; and still Isabella stands, overcome with the hesitations now felt so keenly by the audience that has followed her fortunes so sympathetically, from the moment when Angelo, in his attempt to win her to his lustful desires, has opened her blouse to her waist and sliced open the front of her brassiere with a razor that he has already used to cut himself on the arm — both actions psychologically true and exact, and altogether shocking.
The whole play is full, in this production, of language, action, and behavior very precisely observed. I liked this production greatly, and found that it made a deep impression on me, arousing feelings of anger and disturbance that I was not sure what to do with.