A Well-Measured ‘Measure’

Measure for Measure – Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, RSC

Measure for Measure - production posterMeasure for Measure is that difficult beast, a tragicomedy, and my experiences have to date been somewhat mixed – but this fine production from the RSC was fresh, innovative and often moving.

My previous encounters with the play have tended to stress neither the tragic nor the comic so much as what the play suggests about the corrupting influence of power. Here, I must, too, confess to having sometimes found the play somewhat emotionally void – give me a proper tragedy any day, Othello or King Lear especially.

As a Year 13 or thereabouts (‘Upper Sixth’ in those halcyon days) I watched a production at the Young Vic, an RSC transfer, directed by Trevor Nunn. It was a terse, sometimes malevolent affair, set, as I remember, in late nineteenth century Vienna and which began memorably with the cast dancing waltzes. From there, I recall the Duke departing at a railway station (cue dry ice and sounds of trains leaving) and then not much else, except a play of peculiar oppressiveness and darkness.

Five or six years ago, I also caught the Complicite co-production with the National Theatre in which Simon McBurney played the Duke. A visually arresting, modern dress performance,  it was amazingly choreographed with the most brilliant touches of symbolism and Complicite’s hallmark inventive sound and lighting. Vienna was a corrupt and yet oppressive city, and the Duke was quite an unnerving, untrustworthy character and whilst there were moments of laughter at the Duke’s lines, there’s little I remember, save the most magnificent effect of the Duke arriving, when the auditorium of the National Theatre was overwhelmed by the sound of a helicopter and a huge search light blinded the audience. It was a brilliant moment – but the ending of the play is something of blur.

So it was with some anxiety that I went to Stratford on Saturday to see the RSC’s most recent interpretation, particularly as I was aware of some decidedly lukewarm reviews – such as Lyn Gardner in The Guardian – and the downright unfavourable piece from Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph. Nonetheless, I was not disappointed. Cinematic, visual, highly theatrical, making the best of more stylised forms of performance but never straying far from the text, I think this is probably the best production I’ve ever seen of the play.

From the opening, this was a play about invention and approaching the text in a different way. The Duke, played by Raymond Coulthard, began as a playboy magician, the canisters of Act 1 Scene 1 being conjured from under his robe. Light, irresponsible and almost giddy, he left Act 1 in a magnificent fur coat and beaver hat. From the very outset, we knew we were in for a production which would marvel.

Directed by Roxana Silbert, the play was in a Vienna which was at once modern and with hints of the 1930s. Many of the ruling class – Angelo and the Duke most noticeably – wore leather corsets and black polo necks, reminiscient of Oswald Moseley; Provost’s uniform was particularly suggestive of a fascist regime. This was, however, more of a Vienna of the night and the underworld, of Mistress Overdone’s  brothels, of vice and depravity. As Act 1 Scene 2 began, choreographed actors entered in bondage gear; red fluorescent tubing lit alcoves in which provocatively dressed women erotically danced; the music pulsated provocatively. A mesh of golden chains hung over the stage. The back of the stage was masked off by drooping strips of black rubber or PVC. Yet, after the audience’s initial titillation at much of the overt sexuality of Act 1, this was not so much a world to laugh at as to find strangely empty. Mistress Overdone’s world was one of poverty and a pressing need for money. Yes, it was vacuous – but that was the point.

But there were plenty of characters with whom the audience could engage. Juliet was very visibly pregnant in Act 1 Scene 2 – but also very visibly a very young mother, perhaps no more than fifteen or sixteen. In excruciating pain as she neared childbirth, her unspoken presence was deeply unsettling. So, too, was Claudio’s plight as an unmarried father, facing death. Initially something of a playboy – he entered wearing an oversized codpiece – by the middle of the play he was very much a character for whom we greatly felt. Little touches of costume suggested his youthfulness, such as his black, studded belt as worn by many teenagers. This clearly was a tragic love.

What struck me most, however, was a completely sympathetic understanding of Angelo, played by Jamie Ballard. Often cast as a hypocritical villain, lacking all moral compass except a vacuous moral certainty, Angelo was rather presented as a spurned lover. Here was a good man, but flawed. When in Act 2 Scene 4 he confesses to Isabella, ‘Plainly conceive, I love you’, he seemed very much a genuine lover. Isabella’s response, in comparison, seemed harsh and unmoving – her lines, which have sometimes been taken bawdily or even as flirtatious – were harshly delivered, from a character who was emotionally cold and distant but above all forceful and defiant.

From this moment, the play suddenly changed in tone, becoming much darker and more menacing. The prison scenes became gruesome, with sounds of torture off stage, and Claudio appearing bruised and battered. Escalus’ (Geoffrey Beavers) reasonable approach to law and morality grew increasingly futile when confronted with Angelo’s immovable maxims. And behind this was rhythmic, deep sounding music.

Yet into this world of pain and suffering came Marianna (Catherine Hamilton), the woman whom Angelo had once loved, ravishingly dressed in a translucent, green, almost nymph-like dress. Indeed, away from the black and white of Vienna, this was the only colour within the play. Swinging as the audience returned from the interval, she sang of the pain she too had suffered as a spurned lover of Angelo.

The production, however, never lost sight of the fact that the play is a tragicomedy. By Act 4, as the Duke’s scheming and meddling grew thicker, Isabella became a much funnier character, willing to take part in the most outrageous acts of deception. The humour of Elbow, Pompey and Lucio considerably lightened the play. With some great ad-libbing, the comedy made full use of the intimate actor-audience relationship of the Swan Theatre.

Indeed, as the play reached its denouement in Act 5, when Lucio was sentenced to be hanged and whipped, it was sometimes hard to believe the Duke’s harshest of words, for he was very much a reformed and renewed man. Angelo, meanwhile, was genuinely repentant, and his most memorable line was ultimately a simple, ‘I’m sorry’. As he married Marianna and the Duke asked for Isabella’s hand in marriage, the play ended with a dance – a touch which truly brought out the notion of order restored and of festive comedy.

Measure for Measure is a play open to numerous interpretations, from an attack on religious fundamentalism to a Christian parable on the nature of forgiveness and the notion that beneath the surface we’re really not much different: all have sinned. Perhaps surprisingly, given the somewhat shocking nature of Act 1, that’s precisely what I took from this play – a sense of fallible human beings needing forgiveness – and, even more so, the power of joyful reconciliation.