The 4th Auckland season from Pop-up Globe sets up an intriguing juxtaposition between comedy and tragedy which demonstrates how Shakespeare is able to transcend the conventions associated with two genres.

Measure for Measure supplies plenty of joyous frivolity but along with the laughter, there is a provocative and timely treatment of serious themes. The story about a young woman courageously challenging authority and exposing hypocrisy in high-places feels like it could have come from one of CNN's Breaking News feeds.

Director Miles Gregory has set the play in 1642, with some pointedly modern anachronism scattered amongst the flamboyant period costumes. But the contemporary references are under-played and the production creates a space for audiences to reflect and draw their own conclusions.

If the play has a message for our anxious times it comes from Shakespeare's insistence on expressing the complexity and contradictions of real people. By urging the audience to consider all sides of the story, the play offers an alternative to the current mania for venting moral outrage on easily labelled villains.

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The drama offers a highly nuanced perspective on the conflict between public virtue and private vice and there are moments when rapid changes in tone confound the groundlings who want to boo the baddies and cheer on the heroines.

The production features some show-stopping choral pieces and Paul McLaney's musical score shows great subtly in using stringed instruments to accentuate emotion.

Will Alexander, as the Duke of Vienna, has a commanding stage presence and his impressive vocal delivery precisely articulates the character's mercurial mood swings;

Rebecca Rogers brings an appealing innocence to the role of a novice nun who speaks truth to power and, despite some lapses in diction, Hugh Sexton convincingly expresses the conflicted emotions of a moral zealot who is tormented by an awareness of his own hypocrisy. Max Loban delivers a fine comic turn as a foppish courtier and Matu Ngaropo brings plenty of humour to the role of a kind-hearted jailer.

For Hamlet, director David Lawrence has opted for a sombre production with more angst and anguish than Scandinavian noir. The venue lends an engaging intimacy to the play's sublime poetry and some thoughtful editing brings the sprawling script down to a crisp 2-hours-20-minutes.

In the title role, Adrian Hooke brings clarity and emotional intensity to the soliloquies and his performance emphasises the moody Dane's debilitating awareness of his own inadequacies.

Most of the drama unfolds at an emotional fever-pitch and the play's comic potential is constrained by a wildly eccentric piece of casting: Polonius, who usually presents a doddering old fool as target for Hamlet's mockery, is given to the most youthful looking member of the cast and Salesi Le'ota struggles to come to grips with the role.

Some clever effects are deployed for the ghostly apparitions and the play-within-play is staged with plenty of energy and wit. There is some spirited sword play for the blood–drenched finale and the corpses littering the stage supply a suitable gloomy image for the tragic conclusion.

What: Measure for Measure & Hamlet
Where & When: Pop-up Globe, Ellerslie to March 31
Reviewed by: Paul Simei-Barton