Measure for Measure is one of William Shakespeare’s more problematic plays. This bitter comedy of 1604, a Christmas offering for the Royal court, posits forgiveness as its central theme. Yet Shakespeare’s God-like monarch, the Duke Vincentio of Vienna, is in his own way as blind and unyielding as his duplicitous villain, Angelo, who seems that much more human (or at least, humane) by contrast. The Duke, whose rigidity lead the Encyclopædia Britannica to proclaim the Bard’s message as “a good government is one that is flexible and based on common sense,” is at least to the modern sensibility cruelly manipulative at best, willfully despotic at worst. You can imagine Elizabeth nodding serenely, and that Shakespeare knew how to read his most important audience only too well.

Modern audiences who find a timely relevance in the play’s treatment of sexual blackmail also encounter a final and quite literal silencing of the heroine (the headstrong young novice Isabella), by fiat. Following the Duke’s sudden offer of marriage, which one suspects is more an order than an invitation, she remains mute for the duration of the play. Indeed, there is a nauseating irony at the core of this denouement: Isabella, commanded by Angelo to bed him to save the life of her imprisoned brother Claudio, and whose very qualities of chastity, righteousness, and mercy were what attracted the Duke to begin with, is subjugated once again this time, for life.

But irony is the lodestar in Measure for Measure. When the Duke unexpectedly absents himself from the court, leaving the ambitious Angelo to govern in his stead, his first act is to condemn pre- and extra-marital fornication on pain of death. (The Elizabethan parliament had also discussed a death penalty for this “crime.”) Thus, the bachelor Claudio, who has impregnated Juliet, is sentenced, allowing the author of his imprisonment to demand from Isabella the very act he himself has outlawed. (Come back, William Bennett!) Even Escalus, the Duke’s loyal second, who acts with utmost sincerity and troubles himself throughout as does the Duke himself to avoid taking Claudio’s life, is excoriated. Thus, too, is the consumptive wit Lucio, one of Isabella’s few allies, lead away at the end to be married, whipped, then hanged, for slandering the Duke. Elizabeth’s nod of approval must have given way to demented head bobbing.

If this most recent visit to the Triangle by Actors from the London Stage, then, was less jubilant than its last during which the troupe performed that glorious final statement The Tempest it’s the play that made it so. (Measure for Measure was presented on Sept. 25-27 by the English Department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.) Certainly there was nothing to condemn in the generally splendid acting of the company.

In his one-man show of the 1980s Ian McKellen maintained that “Always there will be actors on a bare stage, acting Shakespeare.” The AFTLS clearly takes this imprecation to heart. As usual, there was no standing scenery: a table, a half-dozen chairs, and some cunning light effects instantly transmuted into the Duke’s court, the priory, the prison, the palace grounds, and Mistress Overdone’s brothel. The props and costumes, too, were minimal: a scarf might become a kerchief or a wimple, vest-like hooded cloaks robes of office, while rattling chains stood in for both the sounds of prison and the applause of multitudes. This company of five superb artists requires nothing more.

Matthew Radford gave strikingly different performances as the rakish tapster Pompey, the tortured Angelo, and his mirror image, the redoubtable Claudio. As Angelo, his quest for “foul redemption” seemed kin to a characterization by Ian Holm; his howl of mental and emotional anguish on “This virtuous maid has seduced me quite” was a scream of pain that dared you to see him as a complete villain. As a slightly bemused Provost, a flustered Sister Francisca, and, especially, the constant Escalus, John Nettleton too put me in mind of another actor, the marvelously changeable Michael Hordern. If in assessing these performances I cite a few great theatrical knights and dames, it isn’t to slight the AFTLS through comparison; quite the opposite these actors may have reminded me of others, but there was nothing at all imitative about the artistry they displayed.

Stuart Fox did what he could which was considerable to soften the Duke’s imperial pitilessness, but the role leaves a sooty aftertaste. Elizabeth Hurran, meanwhile, ran the thespic gamut, from a heart-breakingly wronged Isabella to an achingly amusing hangman, face concealed by veils and eyes popping out in disbelief at the reactions of others to the self-fulfilling mystery with which he imbues his craft.

Best of all was the protean Anna Northam, whose ruined licentiousness, casual sensuality, and hopeless braggadocio as the hapless Lucio which made me think of Vanessa Redgrave (was it the flaming spikes of auburn hair, the patrician bone structure, or simply the magnitude of talent?) was matched only by her own hilariously officious twittering as Elbow. The play’s only thoroughly comedic role, the constable has a delicious verbal tic; he doesn’t so much mangle the language into malaprop as use words that convey precisely the opposite of his meaning (e.g., “benevolent” when what’s meant is “malevolent”). Accentuating this priceless ninny with glasses and a stutter that served as a neat comic metaphor for his innate inability to communicate, Northam crafted a small gem of a performance, one I suspect I’ll remember long after this theatrical season is over.

Cynthia Dessen of the UNC English Department is concerned that the department may lack the funding to bring this essential troupe back to the Triangle. You should be, too. Send your aid and suggestions to her at Theatre this magical should not be allowed to get away.

The ArtsCenter: Actors from the London Stage: