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February 17, 2012

Measure for Measure (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford

Onto a bare stage strode Raymond Coulthard’s Duke. Smiling to the audience, he raised his arms and, with commanding gestures, caused the house lights to be brought down, the music to stop and the on-stage lamps to illuminate. From its very beginning, Roxana Silbert’s new production of Measure for Measure established the Duke’s absolute control of his domain, stage and city. Yet even more striking was the smile he wore as he manipulated his surroundings. This was a Duke who delighted in control, and in the display of control.

The Vienna of this production had structures of sexual control built into its very fabric. The Duke and Angelo both wore strap-on leather corsets as part of their daily costume, and the Duke was attended by French maids and dominatrices. The set included living props: two women in S&M gear stood either side of the stage with spiked lampshades on their heads, departing at the click of a finger when their absence was required. Upstage, hundreds of straightened whips hung from the ceiling, providing a translucent curtain behind which could be concealed the play’s various eavesdroppers, as well as silence scenes of Vienna’s underworld sex scene. And in noisy sequences, Lucio, Pompey and their fellows engaged in a series of submission and domination games, playing out collective fantasies of control.

The Duke’s own choice of role-playing servants and fetish furniture spoke to his flaunting of control, as did his use of magic. His various letters, commissions and seals appeared skilfully from nowhere in his hands, often accompanied by a knowing nod to the audience and appeal for applause. His insistence on drawing attention to his own skill served on the one hand to ingratiate him with the audience, but on the other to set him apart, inculcating the relationship of awe and submission that inevitably underpins the conjurer/spectator dynamic. If his clear skill and awareness meant that an audience could be assured that the play’s conclusion would be his, it perhaps remained unclear that this conclusion would be a selfless one.

It was thus within the Duke’s carefully constructed world that Angelo and Isabella’s conflict was played out. Jamie Ballard’s nervous, intense Angelo oddly retained the trappings of the Duke’s court, including the fetishised lamps who were instructed to leave before Isabella entered; perhaps pointing already to the incipient hypocrisy in his position. Sweating in Isabella’s presence, and almost petulant in his assumption of right, this Angelo was conflicted and insecure rather than dominant. A particularly amusing moment came in the final scene as the Duke instructed Angelo to laugh at Mariana’s claims, at which an artificial fixed grin belied by panicked eyes was forced onto the deputy’s face. His attempts to consolidate his position in the final scene sprung from the same panic, but when finally exposed, there were tears, and something of humility as he stood quietly next to his new wife.

Jodie McNee’s Isabella, a young and often emotional novice, made a decent foil. With her earthy Scouse accent, Isabella’s appeal was offered as a pragmatic and often weary appeal to mercy that, too often, she seemed not to believe in herself. Paul Chahidi’s Lucio took a strong role in setting her on, standing directly behind her during the initial interview and speaking into her ear in support. Yet there were moments of individually inspired spontaneity in her performance that humanised the character: she fell to her knees as Angelo announced that Claudio’s execution would happen tomorrow, the enormity of the moment suddenly hitting her. Later, she reacted with something approaching glee to the idea of the bed trick, the speed and confidence of her acceptance sitting uncomfortably with her earlier moral stance.

These central performances were muted, however, and the drama and interest of these scenes depended rather on the characters supporting them, as in the asides of the Duke and Lucio. What was at stake came alive in moments of extreme feeling, especially Isabella’s scream of rage at hearing of Claudio’s ‘death’; but these were few and far between. This muting wasn’t limited to these characters: Lucio and Mark Quartley's Claudio laughed at Claudio’s initial arrest, and Claudio showed a sanguinity throughout his imprisonment tht was only belied by the look thrown at him by the heavily pregnant Juliet, brought on with him in 1.2 but taken away in a different direction to his apparent indifference. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision to depict a society so preoccupied with sex that emotional intimacy was denied, but if so then it made for a somewhat cool drama. The objectifying glances of the smitten Duke at the departing Isabella, and his sharing of a ‘Phwaoarh’ with the audience were symptomatic of an ongoing detachment from human feeling.

Where the production did succeed, however, was in the creation of a fluid and engaging underworld. From the first moment where Lucio lifted his shirt in order to remove a pair of nipple clips left over after a particularly steamy session, Silbert established a world that was engagingly frank in its embracement of the messy and illicit. The long banter between Pompey, Froth and Elbow may have resulted in a refreshing outburst of frustration from Angelo, and an amused condescension from Escalus, but remained entertaining in itself as Elbow hopped up and down in frustration and a leering Pompey directed Froth in a show of grief and repentance.

Within a fantastical environment (including a woman dressed as a fountain), the simple performances of the supporting characters went a long way towards grounding the play in a representation of reality. Bruce Alexander's Provost, in particular, offered brusquely honest assessments of the stage action that established a straightforward, unsophisticated morality that undercut the machinations of the major characters, and his surprise at being offered a better position drew a sympathetic laugh from the audience. Annette McLaughlin's Mistress Overdone offered an almost dignified defence of her profession, and the deeply-spoken Abhorson spoke calmly of his profession’s mystery. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Lucio. While the character retained much of his arrogance and idiocy, particularly in the final scene, he also acted for the most part as a voice of reason and reflection, offering a practical and sensitive commentary on the plays’ problems. In Chahidi’s hands, the character retained his comic value in his occasional flamboyance and carelessness for the rules, but his relative consistence rendered his eventual punishment by the Duke rather petty.

Two standout comic performances served to lighten the tone throughout, but also to implicate the audience in the debauchery of Vienna. This was most explicit in the case of Joseph Kloska's Pompey. Emerging from a trapdoor in his new role as executioner, he proceeded to acknowledge his old clients from the brothel among the audience, adlibbing freely about balding pates, stripy jumpers and the shocking ability of a lady in the second row to sleep at night after her crimes. More bizarre, but quite wonderful, was the cameo of Daniel Stewart (Patrick Stewart's son) as Barnardine. Appearing first as a head, popping up through a flap in the stage, he screamed his drunken defiance at the audience. When he emerged fully, shirtless and with long lank hair and beard, he staggered about the stage, dodging Abhorson's axe blows and belching in an entirely careless manner, with something of Bertie Wooster's arrogance. In both his appearances, he drew spontaneous applause from an appreciative crowd.

The play culminated in a display of formal control, with the Duke’s seal dominating the stage and the Duke himself standing confidently centre-stage both in his own guise and as the Friar. As anticipated, the conclusion was clear directed through his own activity, the pieces falling into place perfectly. Yet the harshness of his initial threats against Mariana and Isabella, and the suddenness with which he announced his intent to marry Isabella, reminded us that he was primarily motivated by self-interest. In kneeling for his second proposal and holding out his hands, he finally exposed himself, and the few seconds for which Isabella remained silent felt long. For the first time ever in a production that I’ve seen, however, she eventually darted forward and took his hand, making a snap decision that rounded off the neatness of his schemes, while at the same time sacrificing her own independence of presence. The saucy jig that followed, with the actors rotating to engage in choreographed spanking, perhaps deliberately pointed out the underlying question of the final restitution of marital bonds – that these were not relationships built on equal measure, but on delicate balances of control and submission that resisted stability.

April 02, 2010

Measure for Measure @ The Almeida Theatre

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I've been waiting for quite some time to see a good Measure for Measure. It's a play I love on the page, but which I've always been bored by in the theatre. Happily, Michael Attenborough's Almeida production finally met that wish, with strong performances and a simple, persuasive interpretation bringing the play's innate strengths to the fore.

Attenborough's modern-dress production set the play in a rough modern-day London, where prostitutes leaned against decaying archways and coppers - under the new powers gifted them by Angelo - cleared the streets. The opening saw Ben Miles' Duke sitting alone in his darkened office, with classical music playing and an austere Renaissance fresco filling the back wall. As the music gave way to a pounding beat, the fresco became translucent, revealing gyrating pole-dancers. Vincentio bowed his head, the juxtaposition of the state he wanted and the state he had created directly influencing his decision to depart. His initial conversation with Angelo and Escalus, who turned on the light as they entered and thus literally drew him from his darkness, was fast and rushed, he continuing to shout instructions even as he grabbed his coat and marched from the office. David Killick's Escalus and Rory Kinnear's Angelo were left bemused and bewildered at the suddenness with which they had been gifted power. Tentatively, Escalus closed the scene in a deferent tone, inviting Angelo to take the lead, at which Angelo laughed dismissively... and then paused, as the reality of his new situation finally sunk in.

The contrast between the Duke and Angelo's priorities was made quickly clear. A table sat centre-stage for all scenes in the Duke's office, at first cluttered with disordered piles of the Duke's papers, dirty plates and unread files. Upon its next appearance, however, it was almost entirely bare. Angelo's few papers and files were arranged orderly and at neat right angles, with the rest kept safely in his own briefcase. The mission to "clean up" the city was thus immediately recognised as a beurocratic exercise, a dissociated and pedantically-motivated endeavour. Kinnear is fast establishing himself as one of the best young classical actors in the business, and his conflicted Angelo was a triumph of repressed emotion and misused power. Appearing first in shirt-sleeves, this dedicated jobsworth began with good intentions and a desire to prove himself. Separated from the effects of his work, however (as evidenced by his dismissive tone as he ordered executions), he had no power to deal with vice at first hand, whether giving Elbow and Pompey over to Escalus to judge, or failing to restrain his own lust for Isabella.

Anna Maxwell Martin's Isabella was more like Angelo than either would care to admit. Her wish for more restrictions on the liberty of nuns was an early indicator of her over-enthusiasm and zeal: she was as committed to her own beliefs as Angelo was to his; yet she was far from sincerely kind or patient. Rather, she relished the discipline and extremity of her beliefs, allowing her to give her religious fervour full vent. This thoroughly-interesting reading of Isabella meant that she was no pushover, and in fact relished with some glee the idea of the bed trick, as well as being very believable in her promise to scratch out Angelo's eyes. This Isabella was of the fire-and-brimstone school of Christianity, and her initial meeting with the deputy was evangelistic in tone. Every mention of Heaven or higher authority was accompanied by a shaking figure pointing to the sky; every imploration given with the quaver of righteous truth in her voice; every demand made leaning over the desk, pushing her case quite literally onto the reticent Angelo. Her rhetoric and self-belief brooked no argument, and her passion for her beliefs fascinated Angelo, who recognised in her his own dedication.

Comically, their second meeting was prefaced by a short interlude in which Angelo rearranged his desk - still tidy, but now with a crucifix placed prominently - and knelt down to pray with rosary beads, sneaking glances over his shoulder in the hope that she would enter to see him doing so. In trying to meet her to her own liking, Angelo was the first to show weakness, allowing his facade to break. She remained self-possessed, even during a marvellous silence after Angelo's "Your brother must die". While neither moving nor speaking for a moment, Martin conveyed the pain and anguish of reconciling herself to that bad news while maintaining her own dignity and self-presentation, before finally excusing herself and wheeling towards the door.

The anger of the young nun at having her vows explicitly challenged was immediately apparent: as already mentioned, this was a fiery rather than forgiving Isabella, and there was no small amount of vindictiveness in the character. As Angelo tried to persuade her, she shrank into herself, allowing him to sit on a cushion behind her and tentatively put his arms around her as he explained his promises. As soon as it was entirely clear, however, she shot to her feet with a "Ha!", revealing that she had been leading him into the false sense of intimacy in order to draw from him an open confession, which she would publish to the world. This self-righteousness, however, was to her immediate disadvantage for the deputy, previously still governed by some sense of restraint, had now let his guard down and allowed passion to take over. In fury and desperation, he grabbed her, pinned her down on the desk and sat astride her, the threat of rape very much implicit. It was Angelo, though, who perceived her pain and withdrew himself, leaving her sobbing on the desk. Even Angelo had limits; he would not rape her violently, but was prepared to use blackmail to get her "consent".

Miles' Duke was also paralleled with Isabella throughout. After explaining his plan to disguise himself, Isabella entered at the other side of the stage and the two stood as mirror images of each other as they stripped and then were dressed in the respective clothes of a friar and a nun. This was perhaps most interesting in the support it gave for the idea that Isabella's nun-hood was itself a charade or disguise, something to be put on rather than lived. It also meant that our first sighting of Isabella was in her underwear - like Angelo, the audience's first experience of her was as a woman. The connection between them was emphasised just before the interval as, in happiness at the potential for a solution, she took his hand. He held on for a moment longer than necessary, gazing at her, and as she disengaged and left, a confused frown filled her face.

The Duke was characterised for the most part by his calmness, which made those moments when he betrayed his emotions particularly significant. Notably, Lloyd Hutchinson's Irish Lucio got under his skin very quickly, the Duke eventually gritting his teeth every time the man spoke or came near him. More interesting was the Duke's humour and excitement. In the last scene in particular, as he unveiled his plans, he grew over-pleased at his own cleverness and, in a fit of excitement, offered everything he had to Isabella with full confidence of her acceptance. When he returned, in his final speech, to formally propose to her, he left his chair of state and knelt down, with one arm pointing across the stage to the corner where she stood as he asked for her hand. The still silence and complete unresponsiveness of Isabella was drawn out for an uncomfortably long time, before the chastened Duke let his hand slowly fall and left the stage with his entourage. In this moment, we realised that the reasons for the Duke's actions were as much to boost his own sense of self-worth and power as anything else, allowing him to transform from the troubled figure of the opening scene to the ruler glorying in his own power in the last. Isabella's refusal to complete his consolidation of all forms of authority, of course, provided the ultimate undermining of that mission.

The prison scenes were effective. Emun Elliott's Claudius, something of a rake and quite whiny, was particularly effective in his scene with Isabella. He began genuinely outraged on her behalf, before the fear of death slowly crept in on him, his face falling notably as she embraced him, before he began to explore the possibility of her acceding to the request. True to form, she denounced him as sinful and a heretic for even suggesting it, her piety immovable: while one sympathised, one could also see her brother's frustration at her inflexibility. David Annen's dignified Provost had a commanding presence in these scenes, yet fleshed out this rewarding character with his sense of his own political impotence: wringing his hands, he grew angry at the "Friar's" hopes of changing things, which experience had taught this Provost were simply impossible.

The comic characters were also strong, if far more slight. Trevor Cooper's Pompey was a pot-bellied pimp with earrings and leather jacket, a sturdy enforcer who was unmoved and unfazed by his appearance before Angelo, allowing him to draw great comedy out of his lack of reaction. He was allowed, however, a powerful scene with Lucio as he pleaded with him for bail, the tough-guy image giving way to a moment of genuine fear as he realised that help was not at hand. Hutchinson's Lucio, meanwhile, effected a nice switch of sympathies: in the earlier scenes he was sympathetic and on-side, genuine in his wish to help Claudio and amusing as he set Isabella on (though shocked as her fervour took over and rendered his encouragement superfluous). His rejection of Pompey was a turning point, though, followed instantly by his mockery of the Duke to the disguised Duke. As he prattled on unwisely, his inevitable downfall became apparent, and the pay-off - his face as he confidently removed the Friar's hood - was priceless. Sean Kearns' scenes as Froth and Barnardine, however, were rather dull.

For the final scene, a throne was placed centre-stage for the Duke to take control of, and the scene played out as one might expect, almost disappointingly so as the strong set-up was replaced by a feeling of going through the motions. Part of the problem of this scene was its static quality: with the Duke centre, addressing the "crowd" in the audience, the rest of the company were reduced to standing in lines on either side, though even from this position Kinnear gave an impressive demonstration of restrained grief, standing with arms at his side, a slight bow and an utterly defeated demeanour. Isabella was similarly reduced to passivity, with Miles dominating the scene. As he swept off, however, the production closed on a well-chosen image: Isabella, Mariana, Juliet, Claudio and Angelo in a semi-circle spread far around the stage, all looking inwards and all distinctly separate from one another. For none of these couples was there a happy or untroubled ending, and through all of them the effectiveness of the Duke's tricks was thrown open to question. A conventional but powerful end to a solid Measure for Measure that, for this reviewer at least, finally convinced of the play's potence in performance.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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