Shakespeare in Manchester is nothing new. Shakespeare and Manchester however is a completely different proposition. The Manchester Shakespeare Company has burst onto the Fringe scene with one aim – to make Shakespeare contemporary and accessible. Their first adaptation is of Measure for Measure, one of the so-called ‘problem’ plays. And it’s certainly an ambitious production.
The City State of Mancia is in trouble, with riots breaking out, an ineffectual Mayor and a Police force of one. The Mayor (“Just call me.. Dave”) vanishes on a much needed break putting the ambitious Coalition Deputy Nicky Angelo in the hot seat. But Angelo hatches plans of his own, plans with dark intent and outrageous results.
What of this adaptation though? Have writers Hannah Ellis and John Topliff done a good job? It’s a contemporary examination of modern day politics framed with Shakespeare’s tale of justice and mercy. The farcical elements are certainly in place, and it is clear cast and crew have worked hard to make these comedic elements shine through. My inner dramatist wanted just a little more of the social impact to be seen though. Stores such as ‘Twentypoundland’ imply a near future I’m curious to see more of. Similarly, a scene where Lauron Stirrup’s Constable Iqbal explodes in rage at the struggle of keeping her mortgage and kids afloat stands out as powerful. The persecution of Claude for his homosexual relationship could have parallels with the story of Alan Turing, to keep the Manchester connection as well. But, considering Measure for Measure’s heritage as a farce, these issues are probably better explored in one of the tragedies so as not to detract from the comedy.
The cast are clearing enjoying mugging to the audience and none more so than Alex Miller’s Nicky Angelo. Incredibly slimy, with his roving eye, Miller is every inch the pantomime villain. With flashes of violence, and calculated duplicity, Miller is vying with Adam Vinten for the standout performance. Vinten’s Claude positively revels in his accentuated pronunciation and has one just one, but two particularly memorable entrances. Laura Littlewood’s dressed-to-kill lawyer maintains her dignity despite the humiliating events and a very slick Heather Carroll as Angelo’s PA gets amusingly cockier as the play goes on. John Dayton’s Mayor is hilariously ineffective – he can’t even disguise himself properly and his awkwardness is fun to watch, especially in one scene towards the end of Act One that is straight out of sitcom territory.
The innovative set with its revolving flats transform from the Mayor’s office to a sleazy back street hotel in the blink of an eye. These transitions are helped by ‘The Rude Mechanicals’, hoodie-wearing youths whose comical violence towards each other make them outstandingly worthy of their own play, and certainly an innovative decision from directors Gina Frost and Matt Cawson to fill the gap usually left by scene changes.
It’s a solid start for The Manchester Shakespeare Company. Their challenge going forward will be to build on this. They’re promising ‘Before Juliet’ in February (you can guess what that is an adaptation of), and I will be interested to see what they make of a tragedy. Desperate Measures is a riot though, and a lot of fun with a watchable cast. A promising new venture – 1 down, 35 to go.
The Fiction Stroker gives Desperate Measures four strokes out of five:
Desperate Measures is on at the Three Minute Theatre, Oldham Street until Saturday. You’re advised to book early, as ticket sales are already strong.