With scandals involving Prime Ministers and Miss Piggies, sex being up for sale, and the rise of the television preacher; it’s no wonder that Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has crawled from obscurity and resurfaced as a frequently produced play in the last few years. In London alone, three major productions have been put on at the Barbican, Young Vic and Globe, and each one with a starkly different direction from the last. It’s almost impossible not to compare the Measure for Measures of 2015; especially the two at the Young Vic and The Globe which have been put on at the same time. With one critique, I hope to tackle both versions of this problem play and see just how they – pardon the pun – ‘measure’ up.
Now, it should be noted that after reading the play last year, performing it in Bristol, and now having seen it twice, I can safely assure myself that I do not rate Measure for Measure as highly as some practitioners do. Certainly, the topics are relevant, the ambiguities of the text are intriguing, and there is some cracking verse and drama within the play that illustrate the brilliance of the Bard. Yet, the plot holes, the absurd leaps of faith, the awkward ending, and overall mediocre comedic sub-plot hinder the texts’ nuances. It may be Shakespeare, but it doesn’t reach the same levels as the Hamlets or Midsummers. But even Shakespeare’s worst can be the theatres best when performed by the right company, and this play attracts directors for the well of potential it bears. So, to see how Dominic Dromgoole and Joe Hill-Gibbins tackle the piece in such opposite methods will provide new insight to the text.
For Dromgoole, the Artistic Director for the Globe since 2005 and on his way out by 2016, does exactly what one pays for at the Globe: tradition. In Jacobean garments, lutes and lyres strummed in the wings or Heavens, and the Globe style of performing the ‘original’ way; Dromgoole plays his strengths that have made him successful these last 10 years. But in contrast to Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure earlier this year, a dark twisted tragedy; this production embraces the fun and brings back the comedy. Joe Hill-Gibbens departs from both approaches also: timeless instead of modern or traditional; tragicomic rather than one or the other; American, not Russian or English; and revelling in the weirdness.
This is evident in what Gibbens envisions the ‘Vienna’ of his world to be. Nothing more than a carpeted box that leads to a backstage Alcatraz, the seedy underworld is summarised in a mountain of blow-up sex dolls. Clearly the people take prominence over the place, as Gibbens shifts in location and general world are unclear, but the citizens personified as sex dolls explain it all. Its works powerfully when these sexizens are thrown into the prison behind, but we lose a sense of place because of it. With projections of pop art and Religious iconography, we lose any emotional or intellectual divide between the sex and saints of Vienna. Sometimes this can work, but for a play where the central actions of Angelo and Vincentio are all driven towards the ‘good of the city’, it’s hard to understand their motives when there is no city to save.
Dromgoole fairs better in this regard, for while the audience are driven to root for the sex-scape, we feel a clear sense of habitation and environment in the play. Firstly there’s the pre-show, where miniature pubs and brothels are wheeled into the Yard, and various members of the cast (including Dean Nolan as constable Elbow) interact with the groundlings and anchor us in the streets of Vienna. But Dromgoole doesn’t stop there, as Angelo’s punishments are interacted in the crowds of theatregoers, when women are dragged into the centre and branded with a hot poker, as the brothels literally leave town. To see Vienna adapt and evolve, and the citizens’ lives change even as the Duke returns truly is a rewarding experience.
But what is a city without its mayor (or Duke in this case)? Vincentio, one of Shakespeare’s biggest ramblers (and also one of the most confusing) has been a tricky character to stage. You have many dilemma when need to justify his sudden proposal to Isabella, or explain his random decision to hide as a friar, or worse to lie to trick various characters about an honourable man dying. Dominic Rowan takes the Basil Fawlty route in the Globe production. The grand plan of the play is not carefully orchestrated, but on-the-cuff improvised by a man whose never tasted responsibility before. In this valid interpretation, the play’s humour revolves around the Duke, as his endearing charm allows the play to softly land at the end. The equally valid interpretation of the Duke lies in Zubin Varla’s performance: a businessman who retreats behind a habit and camera from all the pressures of the world, whilst tiptoeing around his mania. Both takes on the Duke are valid interpretations, justifying the bizarreness of the protagonist motives, yet excusing them also. While Varla remains an enigma abruptly ending the play, Rowan is revealed as the unlikely director behind it all.
As for Angelo and Isabella, the contrasts appear more so than the comparisons in these two productions. For the Globe, their dynamic on stage with one another is what brings the play slightly down. While Mariah Gale stands with absolute pathos that grounds most scenes she’s in, Kurt Egyiawan has an Angelo that is too disjointed as a character and lets down the duo. His Angelo is rigid on the meter, slow concise and on the point, but the acute dedication to the text makes Angelo too ‘Shakespearean’ a character, even in his emotional soliloquys. It becomes hard to believe this man is truly feeling lust, and when he explodes into aggressive sexuality it feels so out of nowhere that it feels forced. The attraction to Isabella appears transparent. This is a shame, especially in Gale’s case as she shows her gravity in other scenes (though despair is the characters only setting until the very end). Paul ready’s Angelo on the other hand, illustrates how the character an work without sympathy. Instead of a man doing what he believes is right, Ready’s Angelo is a toady zealot who tries to wriggle out of facing his perversion of the law. The attraction therefore makes sense, as it shown to be completely one sided on Angelo. Romola Garai’s Isabella, like Mariah Gale, proves to be a strong foundation that holds the play together. Her genuine belief in God, and indignation in the wrong, allow her to convey a stronger Isabella, who is less a puppet and more of an unwilling player in the Duke’s game.
Mariana (usuallya minor character in appearance) shines in both versions also. From the reclusive rocker in Cath Whitfield to the brazen lady of Rosie Hilal, these actors show how much a resence can be felt on stage with any part.
But with one play so dedicated to the darkness, and the other so fixated on the light, that comic sub-plot becomes an obvious subject to dissect as both take extreme measures. One similarity between the two is the peppering of this plot, as the comedy is now sprinkled lightly throughout the play rather than experienced in dense scenes. This is probably for the better for, frankly, the mediocre scenes involving Elbow, Pompey and the bawds wane in large doses. In smaller bites, these scenes can actually surprise in their general entertainment. Dromgoole ensures he can get every quip, joke and slapstick out of the lines, with Pompey (Trevor Fox), Elbow (Dean Nolan), Mistress Overdone (Petra Massey), Escalus (Paul Rider),and other bawds going nuts in the Globe. In any spare moment they can, the actors do dance moves and somersault into provocative embraces, sometimes succeeding, sometimes trying too hard. The effort is more valiant though, in comparison to Gibbens near omission of these scenes (no wonder the play is an hour and a half). It’s understandable a decision, as the focyus of the Young Vic Measure is not about the dirty jokes, yet the roles of Lucio and Pompey (John Mackay and Tom Edden) feel pointless then. Lucio almost has no direction in the play after delivering Isabella the news of her brother, except for the implication that he sees through Vincentio’s disguise. As for Pompey, Tom Edden’s Bronx accent and clear caricature of the seedy American has no need in what Gibbens is trying to convey.
But what is Gibbens conveying? In short; voyeurism – at least, this is what the plays works best at. Straight from Varla’s recorded monologue at the beginning, Gibbens prises the world of Measure for Measure through a camera lense as the private is dragged into the public. One of the best scenes in the play uses just this, when Claudio (by the fantastic Ivanno Jerimiah), typically the standard ‘good guy’ of these plays, witnesses his own sex tape shown to the audience as he is arrested. But when the play hits its stride with religion and perversity, it quickly becomes swamped in the abundance of ideas. The flow of the text is also stunted by the unnecessary edits on the lines, replacing words like ‘tapster’ with ‘barman’ for the audience, yet grinding against Shakespeare’s verse.
As for Dromgoole, his success comes not from the meat of the play (Angelo’s ultimatum), but from everything else. In the end, the Globe production makes the play les about the drama of those few scenes and more about this sprawling tale that impacts people of all social standings. Also, there are less ideas floating around, and the interpretation more straightforward. While the ending wraps everything in a fine bundle (unlike the actual text), as the typical Jacobean dance finishes the play, I realise that simpler can sometimes be better.