The ‘problems’ continue for The Show Must Go Online this week, as they tackle Measure for Measure – jumping from Troilus and Cressida‘s classical Troy to Vienna. It’s also designated as a sort-of comedy, though again this may depend entirely upon your own perspective.
Measure for Measure is another that I haven’t seen that many times. My first production was Josie Rourke’s at the Donmar in 2018; this starred Hayley Attwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo, though at the interval they would switch positions and go through the whole thing again. Though it had slightly mixed reviews, I found it fascinating & truly chilling – Attwell’s character ends up in quite horrifying positions whether she’s a novice nun in the 16th century or a female authority figure in the present day. Depressingly true, and especially powerful seen back-to-back. Last winter I saw the RSC’s production when it transferred to the Barbican for the winter, and it was definitely interesting to see the play in full this time (Rourke’s was understandably a cut-down version, as it was technically performed twice).
Dr Carla Della Gatta (assistant professor & writer, with an emphasis on Latinx) introduced this play, admitting that “audiences will feel ambivalent” about events at the end, though also drawing comparisons between this and Shakespeare’s last comedy (Twelfth Night) – they both have female protagonists who receive unwanted attention, for one thing. It’s quite a fast-paced play thanks to many short scenes, and the words ‘virtue’, ‘justice’ & ‘mercy’ are most frequently used in this Shakespeare play out of the entire canon. “Where do we get out personal moral code?” – it’s interesting to consider this relative to the community, as different people form different backgrounds will have individual boundaries that they are unwilling to cross (for example, Isabella would give up her life rather than her chastity to save her brother). There’s also the theme of forgiveness “and what the legal system allows”, plus the hypocrisy of those in power not obeying the very laws they enforce – where have we seen that recently..? This also links to the question of “who is in control in society?”, and frequent references to money suggest the “transactional nature of crimes”.
Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is due to leave the city for a while and so hands over his power to Angelo – someone notorious for his strictness in following the law. Vincentio is not too far away, however, as he disguises himself so that he can see how things are handled in his absence. Claudio is taken to prison, as he has got Juliet pregnant; the couple are not yet married, as there were several legal technicalities that still needed to be seen to. Under Vienna’s laws, this is punishable by death – and of course a character like Angelo is going to make sure this is enforced. Isabella is still a novice nun, so she is sent for and is granted an audience with Angelo; it appears that he is not as incorruptible as first thought, offering her a deal: if she sleeps with him, he will spare her brother’s life. Unable to speak out and fearing damnation if she accepts the offer, she visits Claudio to break the bad news – though she finds her brother less understanding than she’d hoped. Fortunately for the siblings, the disguised Vincentio is on hand – and he has a plan…
One thing that continues to impress me with TSMGO is how well they are able to present events in Shakespeare’s plays while still utilising exactly what is in the text; this open-minded fidelity has the potential to help people realise they are Shakespeare fans after all, as well as telling the story in a way that effortlessly highlights its relevance to current affairs. Having a female actor as Vincentio, for example, unlocks different ways of exploring gender identity within the play; Nayia Anastasiadou has great fun with the role, at times making it appear as though everything that happens is just the Duke trying to create entertainment for himself – all the while, the play teeters on the edge of tragedy.
The ending, too, is a credit to the company. Shakespeare offers no definitive response from Isabella when Vincentio declares his intentions of marrying her; there is a suggestion that for audiences at the time nothing would need to be said, as a woman would be expected to meekly go along with it, but that is obviously up for interpretation from production to production. Vincentio here offering more of a power share (or even a complete handover), after being impressed by Isabella’s resilience & moral fibre, is intriguing. It’s clear that taking the Angelo approach is not good for the populace, but would a nun-in-waiting be any less problematic? As long as her religious leanings didn’t interfere with affairs of state, someone with such integrity and a real sense of right & wrong would be a boon to the city’s leadership – I know we in the UK would all appreciate a figure like this in our government right now.
Yet again more wonderful performances from an excellent cast; I have to commend the fabulous Wendy Morgan for the incredible array of costumes and accents she had to offer for her various ensemble roles – going from Scouse to Estuary, Mistress Overdone to nun is no mean feat! Kevin V. Smith was really enjoyable as Lucio, giving him a sassy streak that really suited the double-dealing nature of the character – he couldn’t help himself even when saying he’d rather be whipped than marry a prostitute. Gareth Turkington was suitably menacing as the austere Angelo, and Amelia Parillon gave a wonderful performance as Isabella – the Hamilton-esque gasp as the show ended was a nice little touch, as the novice nun suddenly finds herself in a position of great power.
The first time I saw Measure for Measure I was obviously most interested in the #MeToo elements to the story; this is obviously still pertinent now, but what most stood out were the liberties that people in authority could take with the law. “Do as I say, not as I do” seems to be the motto for current UK government, and it hits you right between the eyes in this play – another brilliant production, with talking points galore.
Next week: Othello
Measure for Measure was broadcast on 2 September 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page. The Show Must Go Online merchandise is available from Redbubble.