It’s a convoluted story and certainly neither Shakespeare’s best nor my most favorite play. The story of the Duke who is “testing” his subjects while he is gallivanting about in disguise to see what his people think of him and then is surprised when the one man who didn’t even want to be his replacement not only fails to lead – and executes the law by the letter, without compassion – but also gives in to temptation is weak, to say the least.
The story’s set in Vienna shortly after the second world war which is as it may, and young Claudio is set to die because of a draconian law against fornication. (funny, during the time of Empress Maria Theresia, who bore her husband 16 children, such laws were first introduced in reality – a chastity commission was trying to keep a lid on the obvious lust not only for life the Viennese were famous for, Even the empress’ husband, you see, was fornicating left, right and center)
Now Claudio has made his lover pregnant and even though he wants to marry her he is in jail. So his sister, living in a convent and soon to be a nun, is sent to sway governor Angelo (a brilliant Tom Rooney) and have her brother freed. Angelo though falls in love with Isabella and presents her with an ultimatum: She has to sleep with him or Claudio dies.
Desperate, Isabella confides to a monk – who is the duke (wonderful: Geraint Wyn Davies) in disguise – and he comes up with a plan. He substitutes Isabella with Angelo’s ex fiancee who willingly shares his bed. But Angelo has already signed the death warrant and it’s sheer luck or fate that nobody dies that night.
the next morning the duke confronts Angelo: he had fornicated as well, so what would his penance be? But in the end, Angelo will marry his ex, Claudio his lover, and the Duke has eyes on Isabella (one of the lesser believable turns in this play, I have to admit) and nobody dies except a career criminal.
The rather convoluted plot as well as the not very likeable characters make this play neither easy nor does it seem like Shakespeare’s usually very cleverly plotted ones. I appreciated the acting that was really amazing as usual, but all in all the play itself didn’t endear itself to me. oh, well, they can’t all be winners 😉