Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Music by Claire van Kampen
Mariana and Isabella
The Globe, London
Sunday 5th July 2015
The pit with brothels – the play hadn’t actually started
Mariah Gale – Isabella
Dominic Rowan – Duke Vincentio
Kurt Egyiawan – Angelo
Brendan O’Hea- Lucio
Trevor Fox – Pompey
Rosie Hital- Mariana
Joel MacCormack – Claudio
Dean Nolan – Elbow / Barnadine
Petra Massey- Mistress Overdone
Paul Rider- Escalus
Naana Agyei-Ampadu- Juliet
Dickon Tyrell- Provost
Dennis Herdman – Froth / Friar Thomas
James Lailey – Abhorson / Friar Peter
Measure for Measure gets the label problem play because it has elements of tragedy and comedy intertwined. It can be played as a dark, repressed dystopian state outlawing sex, it can be played as a rip-roaring comedy about lust and licence, or a combination of the two.
British Theatre Com has a quote (Stephen Collins reviewing The Beaux Stratagem) which I’ll both link and quote:
(Critic Ian Judge) and Donald Sinden were attending a very unfunny production of Measure For Measure. At the start of the interval, Judge turned to Sinden and remarked how difficult it must be for Sinden to sit through this production “especially when you had had such a big success with Judi (Dench) in the play”. “Ah yes”, replied Sinden, “but then it was much easier for us, because we did it as a Comedy!”
I have seen very unfunny Measure for Measures too and the play never got into my favourites list for Shakespeare. Dominic Dromgoole has done it at the end of his ten year run as Director of The Globe, and he’s done by far the funniest ever Measure for Measure and for me the best. The highest praise I can give it is that it made sense of the competing strands in the play for the first time for me AND I learned to love the play itself.
There were wooden boards warning of nudity and bawdiness at the entrances. As with most Globe productions, you should go in as soon as the doors open. Here we had the band playing, then two wooden brothels were pushed into the pit area and the prostitutes tried to lure groundlings in. Elbow, the constable, appeared behind us in the Middle Gallery looking for “illegal substances”. The brothels were shaking with interior activities. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and Elbow chasing the tarts around, the tarts stealing his slate. Through it all Duke Vincentio sat on a chair with his back to the audience. The mayhem as more puritan constables arrived to chase the tarts accelerated, the music got more raucous. I’ve seen lively Globe pre-shows, this was the most elaborate and the best.
L to R: Elbow the Constable, Mistress Overdone, Pompey the Tapster
They achieved a full-on ensemble hilarious first 30 minutes or so, then gradually, one at a time, whores were dragged through the audience by puritan-dressed men, branded with hot irons, thrown into prison. The set started with a red carpet laid at angles, forming walkways. Gradually the red carpets got rolled up, and prison bars filled the three back entrances … not as a “set change” but just during the main action.
The play has to get serious, and it did and the tragic dramatic element took over, but always enlivened by humorous interventions. This is Shakespeare so no synopsis (see the RSC 2012 Review here for that), but rather character by character.
Vincentio disguised as a momk (Dominic Rowan)
The central character is Duke Vincentio, who hands over political power to his deputy, Angelo, and goes off to try being a monk, but can’t resist slipping back in monk’s guise to see how things are going, then manipulating the action. Dominic Rowan stayed humorous as the Duke, playing him as well-meaning, but with furrowed brow because he’s a bit dim. His monk has a bald head wig and continually has trouble making signs of the cross, and saying the right blessings. His comic timing throughout was exemplary. The power of his performance, and his rapport with the audience, is shown when he reappears in full gold finery towards the end, and the cast applaud in character, and the whole audience join them and participate so that the Duke’s return is frenzied clapping and cheering. He also got applause on a couple of minor exits, not for anything spectacular, but for perfectly placed lines and expressions. The Duke is a complex character … it was his idea to start the puritanical offensive against fornication in the first place. Then he wants to take up religious orders, then he manipulates the action, with the idea of Mariana substituting for Isabella at the tryste with Angelo. But he also finds it amusing to leave poor Isabella thinking her brother is dead at the end until he reveals him. A fabulous moment is when he’s looking at the pirate’s severed head (the pirate had died anyway, so they decapitated him so that Angelo would think it was Isabella’s brother, Claudio). He hears Isabella is coming and he and the Provost throw the head back and forth between them like a hot brick. The ending is one where I’ll quote my earlier 2012 review. Having resolved everything and saved Isabella from Angelo’s evil clutches, the Duke announces that he’ll marry her himself. It’s like Genghis Khan saving a damsel in distress from rape, then saying “Send her to my tent.” In this Isabella’s reaction is perfect. She puts her hands to her head in sheer disbelief. Vincentio simply doesn’t get the point!
Angelo and Duke Vincentio (near the end)
Isabella could not have looked more virginal and innocent. She is a novice, so in a pale blue shapeless cotton dress. She’s thin, her face is pale and scrubbed. She exudes anxiety. That’s a given, but this Isabella can also go from the helpless, pleading character to full on powerful fury. Mariah Gale is easily the best Isabella I’ve seen, and would also have worked just as well in a “serious” version. That’s because with it all going on around her, she has to remain, tragic, wan, innocent, but fervently pious and determined that it is better that her brother die than she submit to the shame of sex with Angelo … it’s his head for her maidenhead.
Isabella pleads to Angelo in vain
I’ll cover the comic characters next. These are all played very large indeed, and the better for it. The most athletic part is Mistress Overdone, the Madam. Petra Massey gets thrown around, turned through every angle into the rudest of postures. As she reveals later, she is the original tart with a heart.
Lucio (Brendan O’Hea) is one of Shakespeare’s great comic roles, one which shines even in “serious” versions. This was as mincing and foppish as it’s possible to be. Fabulous green costume, strands of hair pasted across the pate. Lucio, talking to the monk, slags off the Duke. These scenes were priceless, with Dominic Rowan’s expressions letting the audience in … he knows, and we know that he knows, that Lucio will get his comeuppance. As he does.
Lucio (Brendan O’Hea) and Vincentio as the monk
Then there’s Pompey Bum, the pimp (or tapster, as he calls himself). He ends up in prison, and is let out on agreeing to become assistant executioner. Trevor Fox played him as Geordie. Both traps beneath the stage were used as prison cells.
Elbow is the constable, and Dean Nolan plays both Elbow, and Barnadine, the drunken prisoner of seven years. Nolan has shone in similar roles at the Wanamaker. He’s a huge man, but he is an amazing physical actor … I’ve seen him do a cartwheel at the Wanamaker. He has cornered a certain area. You see his Elbow and you think, ‘Phew! He’d win any audition for Dogberry in Much Ado.’ Then you see him as Barnadine, a wild man covered with hair, and you think, ‘A perfect Caliban!’ Elbow borrows a couple of lines from Dogberry … in confusing malefactors and benefactors.
Froth, the youth, arrested with Mistress Overdone is a delicious cameo by Dennis Herdman. Rosie Hital’s Mariana has a twinkle in the eye at the thought of taking over Isabella’s bedroom role.
Add the cast of six “citizens” – whores and clients at the start, puritans at the end. Now to the serious ones.
Claudio (Joel MacCormack) is as pale and wan as his sister. He’s another with no funny lines, but there are not a lot of laughs in imminent execution. The Povost and Escalus, Angelo’s assistant, are the other straight parts. Both perfect.
Angelo (Kurt Egyiawan) and Isabella (Mariah Gale)
I’ve left Angelo, normally the central character to last. He’s played by Kurt Egyiawan. Smart, spotlessly clean black clothes with gold buttons. I like the first scene. Clearly this Angelo does not like being touched. The Duke puts a hand on his shoulder, then his arm, and Angelo is trying to control revulsion at being handled. This OCD aspect is why the whores, with their several kinds of diseases, disgust him. It’s why Angelo becomes obsessed with the pasty-faced virginal Isabella. He has a physical scene where he throws her to the floor and leaps on top of her, her head over the stage edge, her 16th century drawers revealed t the world (yes, they go for authenticity). Angelo is what it’s about, and I see Angelo as the twisted cold manipulator … after having his wicked way with what he believes is Isabella (in fact Mariana), he orders Claudio’s immediate beheading. He went back on the deal of her maidenhead for Claudio’s head. Angelo is a twisted puritanical hypocrite. But not really here. It’s odd to review a five star production, and have doubts about the central role. I got the impression that yes, he was inspired to lust when Isabella touched his chest while pleading and for the first time in his life he was not repulsed by human contact. But at that point, you feel he’s a tragic figure, taken over by sudden passion. We don’t see the cold manipulator, but Angelo has to be a really evil person to go back on the deal so spectacularly in ordering Claudio’s head to be brought to him. We got puritan, we got cold, we even got a surprising tragic, but I couldn’t feel the manipulator. It didn’t convince me.
I’ve always wanted to see one set in 1910s Vienna (it has been done apparently) but Dominic Dromgoole’s lusty ensemble piece ignores that setting, which was a switch from Italy anyway. This bawdy setting puts us squarely in Southwark in 1604, in the area surrounding The Globe. And all the better for it. Walking back towards Borough Market, we were passed by three hen parties on those carts with eight sets of pedals to propel them – scantily dressed, cackling, completely pissed, singing along to the hits of Abba and Kylie, chucking wine and beer at the public. Shakespeare would have recognized his Southwark in 2015 all too well (though no doubt would misinterpret their innocent intentions).
Five stars *****
Tuesday 22nd September, 19.30
L to R: Pompey Bum, Elbow, Vincentio
Having seen it early in its run, I also saw it at the end. A friend was visiting, and we wanted to go to The Globe and Measure For Measure is my favourite Globe production so far this year, so was the choice. Had it changed? I thought the pre-show was shorter, but then again it was packed tight in the pit … I’d guess at capacity and there was less space.
I thought that as the monk, Vincentio had lost some of his confusion on how to make the sign of the cross (unfortunately). The comedy was bigger, the raucous physical tumbling seemed bigger too – and very polished it was too. Angelo’s projection had definitely improved, but we still failed to get the edge of cold fish nastiness that the role can have.
It was just as good second time around. I can’t think anything was cut or changed … just even better physical stuff. The walks from Elbow and Lucio were even funnier. We remarked afterwards that if Shakespeare had intended the play to be serious, he would not have named characters Pompey Bum, Mistress Overdone and Elbow.
I do appreciate these series cover designs. The essays are as usual informative and essential, but I found the synopsis below the normal level of clarity.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
All’s Well That Ends Well – RSC (also as Mariana!)