Measure for Measure
Shakespeare’s Viennese tale of morality and justice seems a very dark one.
A young man, Claudio, already betrothed but not yet church-wed, gets his near-wife pregnant and is sentenced to death for fornication. His sister, Isabella, a novitiate in a nunnery pleads for his life and Angelo, the deputy left in charge by absent Duke Vincentio, offers a deal: give me your virginity and I will spare your brother’s life.
What a dilemma! In contrast to this moral quandary, Shakespeare presents the steamy underworld of the brothels that Angelo has decreed should be pulled down, a low comedy undercurrent.
When Heminges and Condell published their former colleague’s plays in the First Folio in 1623, they grouped Measure for Measure with the comedies and it is as comedy that director Dominic Dromgoole approaches this production.
Even before the play proper starts, the pimps and whores are whooping it up among the groundlings setting a mood of raucous humour before Dominic Rowan’s Duke Vincentio announces his departure for Poland and Angelo’s appointment. The Duke, refusing a public send-off because, he claims, he doesn’t like making public appearances, disguises himself as a friar to get a grassroots view of his city’s life and so gets involved in Claudio and Isabella’s story.
Rowan suggests a relatively easy-going man a little guilty at having kept aloof from stern administration and rather enjoying his disguise—he treats his investigations as a game, however serious they be. There are signs of rapport and trust in his scenes with Mariah Gale’s pure and passionate Isabella. Shakespeare’s text is ambiguous regarding the decision that Isabella makes at the play’s end but this colours it.
Kurt Egyiawan’s Angelo is no tyrant. He is driven to uphold a strict morality and the letter of the law, though back-story shows he could use it to self-advantage, and truly struggles with the discovery of his own carnality. Often, the emphasis in this play is on the contrast between venal Angelo and pure Isabella but, without detracting from that, Dromgoole centres it on the Duke, a man whose wrong-righting follows some rather arbitrary judgements.
This production brings out the human in all its people from Joel MacCormack’s Claudio, not knowing quite what has hit him, to Paul Rider’s soberly responsible administrator Escalus. Even Brendan O’Hea’s duplicitous Lucio, a popinjay who struts around in green silk and cross-garters, linking the worlds of court and low life, has a humanity that makes him likeable.
With that rumbustious low-life, Dromgoole ensures that the dark drama does not dominate. The coarseness of Petra Massey’s Mistress Overdone, the cockiness of her partner Trevor Fox’s Tyneside Pompey, the gibbering idiocy of Dennis Herdman’s Froth and the quivering bulk of Dean Nolan’s hilarious Elbow are a riot.
This is not a matter of the crowd-pleasing indulgence of some Globe productions (with some reason, encouraged by the playing space and perhaps early modern precedent) but in shaping the whole production.
Sometimes its crudeness is excessive but these are after all the whores and whoremongers of the streets that one stood here (surely Shakespeare didn’t really mean Vienna) and this treatment primes the audience to pick up comedy elsewhere.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton