Measure for Measure
Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Roxanne Silbert
28th January 2012
Shakespeare plays wax and wane in popularity. If you’d asked my parents for a Shakespeare title in the Daily Mirror crossword, The Merry Wives of Windsor would have come to mind first, and now it’s rarely done. Three times I’ve been instructed to read The Complete Works in full. First starting Sixth Form English, secondly at Bournemouth College, where I briefly started the external London degree while applying to a “real” university, and thirdly starting a subsiduary Drama year. Twice I thought, ‘Yeah, right,’ (or whatever we said back then) and hoped Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare would get me through the plot and principal characters of the main ones. I really did it the third time, well, just the plays. In spite of that speed-reading, Measure for Measure never registered on my radar until my daughter studied it for A level, in its late 90s / early 2000s “set Shakespeare play” ascendancy. ’ I don’t think my 60s teachers would have felt comfortable with the amount of sex in it. I thought our Shakespeare teacher was going to expire as he explained Let us now speak of country matters … . He was a retired headmaster. I suspected that Measure for Measure had enough intricacy and moral ambiguity to make setting exam questions easy. Kenneth Tynan once called it ‘a bugger of a play.
I’ve seen it twice. Simon McBurney’s production at the National Theatre in 2004 with David Troughton was fast, sustained brilliance in a modern setting. A five star production if ever there was one. Then the Peter Hall Company did it at Bath Theatre Royal in 2006 in a conventional costume setting with a set that could be a prison, nunnery and courtroom, but was hampered by the play being in rotating repertory on a bog standard proscenium stage. Conventional doesn’t have to mean dull, but here it did. Dull is too exciting a word. Dullish.
It’s paired up with Taming of the Shrew at the RSC, both plays with a gender problem for modern audiences. A teacher I know in London said the whole Claudio / Isabella issue (why didn’t she sacrifice her virginity to save her brother’s life) founders in a social setting where if she HAD slept with Angelo to save Claudio’s life, Claudio would have felt duty-bound to murder her in a family honour killing. But that makes for interesting classroom discussion.
Isabella and Vincentio (in friar’s disguise)
Both Vincentio (aka The Duke of Vienna) and Isabella are hard parts to play. Some critics see Vincentio as the capricious deity, playing with people as puppets, in the tradition of the Greek & Roman pantheon. Then everone gets sprayed with mercy at the end bringing The Duke into a Jesus figure.
In this production they’re focussed on the politics, as the RSC programme (superb as ever) emphasises. It all goes back to Machiavelli. Duke Vincentio needs to clean up a corrupt Vienna, but appoints a running dog to do it for him. Thus he can step outside the inevitable nastiness involved and reappear at the end as the charismatic popular leader. The parallels are obvious. Blair had Mandelson to do the weasel dirty work. Cameron appears to have the rubber-lipped Michael Gove (“End of story! to any question) as the one everybody loves to hate.
Angelo Accused (Jamie Ballard)
Both Duke Vincentio and his proxy, Angelo, are dressed in corsets to signify their repressed natures … the whole production is dressed in SM-lite, and I hate to think about the smell of leather trousers under stage lights after a few weeks. The SM bit doesn’t quite work. There are funny bits as when Lucio removes nipple clamps early on, but why do two wordless female attendants in basques with helmets (more like lampshades) over their heads appear in the background of the ducal court? Perhaps there’s something about being surrounded by perverse sexual images but eschewing sex (Angelo, Vincentio). People with a natural sexual relationship … Claudio and Juliet … are to be punished, or rather, eradicated.
Angelo, the weasel enforcer, succumbs to the politico (Kennedy / Clinton and so many more) power problem of seeking sexual conquest as a badge of his own power … except for Angelo it’s an excruciating first-time one-off and he’s consumed with guilt. I think Angelo lost A LOT of lines in this version, but his acting in the final scenes is a brilliant array of facial expressions.
Vincentio (Raymond Coulthard) is the star of the show, as is the character in every other production. He gets around the capricious deity dilemma by playing it as The Trickster. Throughout he does sleight of hand magic tricks (too often we thought … it wore thin by the end). When he first decides to leave for Poland, and dons furs he reminded us both independently of Rick Mayall’s Squadron Commander Lord Flashheart in Blackadder Goes Forth. Coulthard has the natural Boys Own hero charisma to carry it off. He winks and gestures aside to the audience. It all worked.
Isabella is one of the worst parts in Shakespeare. How do you play her? Jodie McNee looked a convincing would-be nun, in appropriate costume, but it’s so hard to empathize with the role. She didn’t move us to do so. OK, in early Jacobean England, syphilis was rife, chastity hugely valued. So that’s an attraction to a novice nun, but Angelo is an uptight guy who’s avoided relationships (bar dumping Maryana when her dowrey failed to materialise). A big moment is when Isabella pleads for mercy, puts her hand on his chest and something stirs in Angelo that has not stirred before. So Isabella needs to be pure, virginal but totally unaware that she is exuding sexuality. But she really does have to exude sexuality. Think of the image of a woman dressed in black from head to foot, veiled as well, but undulating across the room with a beautiful sway. This performance doesn’t get that at all.
There’s also the question of the ending. Maybe Vincentio has saved her from Angelo’s grasping clutches, but he’s played havoc with her emotions, pretending Claudio is dead. Then he makes the big offer of marriage. It’s a bit like Genghis Khan saving a young girl from a brutal rapist, then saying ‘Take her to my tent.’ How does Isabella react? Either it’s ‘Oh, that Friar was a sweet man, OK,’ which goes with the dispenser of mercy; or there’s shame, shock and revulsion. I thought we just got wooden. It’s a natural reaction to shock, but this is a stage play, not a film with close ups.
The major comic roles naturally work, as they do so well here. Paul Chathidi as Lucio, Joseph Klosla as Pompey, Daniel Stewart as Barnadine. They’re three wonderful performances. The Lucio interaction with the disguised Duke is hilarious, as it should be. Pompey did the audience reaction / stand up comic stuff with a good bit of addition (It’s all in the script … Second Folio, I think ).
Bruce Alexander played The Provost. He’s well-cast, and brings an automatic senior policeman to the role … he was the Superintendent in A Touch of Frost. He was also in our ELT video Double Identity playing a detective inspector.
The RSC dance ending is a classic, except nowadays you expect it. It was an excellent production, which for the RSC is a given … but the Earth didn’t move.
History & Geography
In a film review you call it goofs and bloopers. With Shakespeare you can’t do that, but we know that he was aware of European geography to a degree, but lost in detail over whether places had coasts. You might suspect his reference book fell open naturally at V … Verona, Venice and here Vienna, but Vienna with Italian personal names. OK, as the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor that’s an easy confusion. But Vienna can’t have been an obscure location. In 1529, it was the point where the Ottoman invasion of Europe was checked once and for all. It was a centre of extreme Catholic piety … look at the imagery in the Austrian churches from that era, and in placing a ruler there intent on stamping out sexuality, it was a well-chosen location. The strong religious aspect of the play leads me to think Vienna was not a case of sticking a pin in a map, or a liking for cities beginning with V. The reputation as a centre for debauchery and specialised brothels would fit the early twentieth-century in Vienna, the era of Egon Schiele and Sigmund Freud, which would be a tempting time and place to locate the play.