There’s a sign that greets theatre-goers at The Globe’s Measure For Measure which tells them to expect “naughtiness of a sexual nature”.
And that just about sums up Dominic Dromgoole’s lively production about sex, justice and mercy that opened this week at Southwark.
The bawdiness of the comedy harks back to the original earthy productions staged on the south bank of the Thames during the 16th century when Southwark was known as a den of iniquity.
The gentry lived in London on the north side of the Thames but it was at Southwark where vice thrived, in all its forms, in the brothels, pubs and theatres of the area.
Needless to say the Puritans were appalled and did their level best to drive sex, lechery and drunkenness from the capital’s darkest fringes.
Measure for Measure opens with whores plying their trade among the bemused groundlings, preachers chastising them for their obscenity, and drunks sprawled over the stage.
The story is set in Vienna but you get the feeling that it is more Sodom and Gomorrah. Dominic Rowan’s skittish Duke is planning to flee after losing all control of morality and law in the city (only to return dressed as a monk to sort out the mess he has left behind).
He leaves in charge Angelo, outwardly a puritanical and dour man who is unsure that he has the ability and confidence for such a lofty position.
But, like a lot of underlings elevated above their pay grade, he is determined not to let his boss down and starts to rule with an iron fist.
So first on the agenda is stopping the fun. Brothels are to be shut and prostitution outlawed.
This makes for jolly entertainment with a running routine throughout the play between drunken brothel madam, Mistress Overdone, her pimp Pompey, client and general pain-in-the-posterior Lucio, and the local copper, Elbow.
You have to feel sorry for Petra Massey playing the whore. She spends her time on stage being carted around in a wheelbarrow, flung in a variety of positions pre, during and after engagement, and, at one point, with her nose perilously close to the quivering derriere of a de-bagged punter.
And, at the end of the performance I watched, she was sent tumbling at speed almost into the audience by a boisterous dance routine.
Even so, the antics are pure vaudeville and riotously funny.
The heavily-accented Trevor Fox as the opportunist Pompey, is occasionally difficult to understand but it’s clear enough that his character despises the cant of the ruling classes who condemn sex outside marriage while seeking out his establishment.
Dean Nolan literally throws himself into the very physical part of the rotund Elbow, somersaulting and throwing himself about the stage.
He later steals a scene when he appears in a second role as Hagrid lookalike, prisoner Barnadine, who wants to enjoy his drunken sleep rather than be taken out and hanged.
And Brendan O’Hea’s posturing Lucio (at times a little too Larry Grayson) is an absolute treat, from his mincing walk to his oily comb-over.
But Measure For Measure isn’t all merriment. At its heart is a condemnation of a society’s duplicity. While its menfolk enjoy illicit liasions they enforce a moral code that condemns such behaviour.
One to come unstuck is Claudio, a young man who faces being hanged because he has got his fiance pregnant before marriage.
The play takes a complete change of pace as his pious sister (an intense Mariah Gale as Isabella) begs Angelo to save his life – only for the straight-laced governor to demand her virginity as the price to pay.
But, over-all, this is a jolly romp and great fun to watch. Dominic Rowan shows a deft handling of a complex character who starts out weak and indecisive only to grow in confidence, in the disguise of another, emerging a much wiser ruler.
Measure For Measure runs in rep at The Globe until October 17.
Measure For Measure is a bawdy romp through the hypocrisy and licentiousness of a society whose morals are dubious at best.
A ribald comedy given full rein by departing director Dominic Dromgoole.