Measure for Measure is a notoriously hard play to both perform and direct, not least because uncut it easily stretches to three hours in its entirety and that is a good half hour longer than it needs to be. The lady sitting next to me at this production by Garden Suburb Theatre would almost certainly agree, as she fell asleep after the first five minutes and intermittently opened her eyes, to then settle back into a comfortable slumber. Well to be fair it was a very warm, muggy Friday night and Measure for Measure has a very complicated plot, but some judicious pruning might not have gone amiss.
A play full of strong moral arguments, Measure for Measure allows the characters to throw ideas back and forth about the role of justice: whether a ruler should follow the letter of the law or accept compromise, and perhaps most importantly whether a rapist should be forgiven. Although the slightly lighthearted sub plots add an element of humour, they also force the director to span a strange miscellany of ideas and attitudes, making Measure for Measure first and foremost a problem play.
Initially with this production there was the need to accommodate over 20 actors within the play and ensure that the audience recognises and understands who they are and their relationship with each other. The ensemble nature of the staging by director Colin Gregory, with most of the company on stage the whole time, is a brilliant way to help the audience remember who is who. Additionally, he also manages to find an excellent equilibrium between the serious and comic elements, which can often seem quite incongruous if not carefully balanced.
Amos Witztum’s, Duke Vincentio, is clearly a man on a journey of self discovery, wavering between firm and self-assured with Isabella and Claudio, yet filled with doubts and a sense of concerned responsibility, when considering the way he has allowed Vienna to fall into such bad habits. Witztum manages to keep the Duke believable, despite the fact that he plays fast and loose with his subjects emotions. Keeping the truth that her brother is still alive from the woman he allegedy loves, is perhaps the ultimate example of unscrupulous ‘fake news’ making us wonder why Escalus says ‘he is a man of all temperance’. He takes over the drama halfway through, leaving behind him a sea of confusion, despite all this he still remains likeable.
Isabella is of course the woman who would rather her brother died than give up her chastity – perhaps the most famous line in the play “More than our brother is our chastity,” is some how rather appalling in this day and age, where sexual relations are two a penny and virginity is held cheap. However, like with so many Isabella’s I still find it hard to believe not only that she would change so dramatically and accept the hand of the Duke in marriage, but that someone so virtuous and devout herself would find it possible to talk herself into acquitting Angelo, however much she tries to justify his behaviour as pure – it is an overly simplified response. Just one more problem that is difficult to unravel in this knotty play.
Mariana, played by Francine Ross, desperately clings on to the husband she has just acquired with an urgency borne from the feeling that he is about to be ripped away from her. Her appeal that he be forgiven remains slightly implausible. Far more believable is the woebegone Juliet, who trails behind a chained Claudio, looking suitably sorrowful. Claudio himself appears very little, but Anthony Gretton, gives a memorable performance as a man who moves from the shock of hearing Angelo’s demands to someone who is desperate to live and begs his sister to concede. Perhaps a more gradual change in tone would have been more realistic as I feel that Gretton moves from a stunned sadness to an aggressive desperation a little too quickly.
Michael Reffold makes a very believable Escalus. Omer Warman appears seriously resolute in his honourable agreeing to give the Friar a chance to put right the wrongs initiated by Angelo and Amelia Radnedge stands beautifully still holding a crown, which is never worn!
The bawdy moments are played up well to lighten the tone, particularly Edward Smith as Lucio, who is hilarious as the verbose fool, who stalks the disguised duke. His comically strong performance enhances the dramatic irony as we watch him dig himself deeper and deeper in trouble. It is good to see Lucio played less as a dandy and more as some one who always looks out for number one and takes every opportunity to hear the sound of his own voice.
However, all credit must go to Edwin Coutts, playing Angelo as an unemotional, frigid individual who becomes totally obsessed with covering up the evidence of his guilty lust for the chaste Isabella. Perhaps one of the most difficult of Shakespeare’s roles his despotic, stifled nature is clearly shown through this very confident performance. He manages to present an extremely credible vision of a man who seems to be losing his way, much to his own horror and chagrin.
The staging was unpretentious, but effective. I enjoyed the simple use of rods to create doorways and the pageantry of the Duke’s return to Vienna – although the procession does perhaps sadly add to the length of the play, as did the walking all the way around the circle of chairs to return to the requisite seat, and I was never quite sure if the painted flats really added anything to the play.
Frances Musker and Diana Darrer put together some fantastic costumes, although Isabella’s shoes stand out disappointingly beside the amazing footwear of the male members of the company, you will need to see the show to appreciate their authenticity.
Greater pace, particularly with line delivery in the comic scenes, and perhaps some careful cutting would make the performance a little more slick, however, overall this production has some excellent line delivery and the understanding of the Shakespeare was superb, making it easy to follow the plot and an enjoyable way to spend a summer’s evening.