Jamie Moore reviews the best plays at the Barbican right now.
Measure for Measure
Plays until 16th January 2020
As dramatic text, Measure for Measure boasts all the trappings of a classic Shakespearean comedy: disguise as convenient plot device, questionable humour and a deeply troubling final act. Even so, this Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican Theatre, confidently directed by the RSC’s very own Greg Doran, is a rampant success. The themes of depravity, sexual energy and lust throb tumescently in this spirited production; the enormous ensemble lunge into their scene-making roles with gusto.
Lucy Phelps, who shone in As You Like It as Rosalind (also currently playing at the Barbican), delivers an exquisite turn as Isabella. The visage of horror she adopts at the play’s denouement haunts me still – an updated and more appropriate response to being unilaterally betrothed to a man who’s been deceiving her as to his true identity for the past three acts or so. Also deserving of a special mention is said Duke, emboded by Antony Byrne, whose brawny delivery and easy charisma keeps one perpetually rapt. This one’s worth pootling along to for this pair of board-treaders alone.
Taming of the Shrew
Plays until 18th January 2020
Directed by Justin Audibert, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s gender-inverted production of Taming of the Shrew plays at the Barbican this Autumn and Winter. This incarnation of William Shakespeare’s most notorious of comedies sees the male roles played predominantly by women and vice versa. This production rides on the frothy cusp of the prevailing, and juicily zeitgeisty, gender politic wave.
Seeing a mother (Baptista) selling off her two sons Bianco (originally Bianca) and Katherine (originally also Katherine, much to the amusement of the audience) is really rather striking. As is hearing the female characters declaiming the forthright political language, normally enunciated by the men. By upending the play in this way, instead of hearing an audience tut righteously at the Elizabethan gender politics, so outdated under the modern gaze, I felt the Barbican frequenters were rapt, ingesting the meaning of the words spoken in a way they’d perhaps hitherto overlooked.
With a 20-strong ensemble, the stage swims with talented actors, both in principal and supporting roles. Particularly notable is Sophie Stanton’s Gremia, who glides daintily around the stage under her gargantuan hooped skirt. The audience erupted with glee as, after much gliding, she finally lets her elegant, twinkle-toed façade drop, striding off the stage with Alan-A-Dale-like lopes. All the elements combine to make this an era-defining production of a problematic play; do see it.
Barbican Centre, Silk St, Barbican, London EC2Y 8DS