Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Gregory Doran
Reviewer: Sam Lowe
Measure for Measure is an interesting case study for a Shakespeare play. It’s known for not really fitting agreeably into either genre box of comedy (meaning it possesses a happy ending) or tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into the following: Tragedy, History, or Comedy. Some academics have even referred to it as a Tragi-comedy. This brings with it lots of room for creative interpretation but ideally requires a decisive approach.
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) have taken three plays on tour. All of the productions came to life in Stratford-Upon-Avon and are now been showcased to a wider audience on tour. The touring plays are: Measure for Measure, As You Like It, and The Taming of the Shrew.
In The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre we have been transported to Vienna – but in the 1900s. It’s not a particularly pleasant city at all. There are plenty of brothels and “morality” isn’t even in the dictionary. The Duke of Vienna (Antony Byrne) has a substantial problem on his hands and is struggling to claim back control. Therefore, the Duke leaves Vienna and appoints his second-in-command, Angelo (Sandy Grierson) to deputise and rule in his absence.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, Angelo vows to clean up the city’s act and revives strict laws in the process. This includes closing down Mistress Overdone’s (Graeme Brookes) brothel. As a result of the re-established laws, Claudio (James Cooney) will be executed for making his betrothed Juliet (Amy Trigg) pregnant. Simultaneously, the Duke has a plan to return to Vienna in disguise. He is shaken to hear of Claudio’s deadly fate. In no time at all, the Duke asks his close companion Lucio (Joseph Arkley) to speak to a nun called Isabella (Lucy Phelps) who is Claudio’s sister and a nun. Lucio encourages Isabella to beg Angelo to spare Claudio’s life. Angelo promises the execution won’t go ahead but on one condition… that Isabella sleeps with him – will she go through with it?
There is a strange concoction of energy driving this play of a sexual, lustful, and abnormal nature. It’s certainly apparent in the text itself because of the given circumstances and word choices. That’s not exactly reflected in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design, surprisingly. The Palace set is more bleak, desolate, and miserable with an outlook very much geared towards seeing the tragedy in human civilisation. It’s a design that sets the tone of this production to be a tragedy. Bretta Gerecke’s lighting plays with angles and clinically white colours complimenting the overall design, giving a claustrophobic and oppressive feel. Confusingly, however, the start of the second half looks the exact opposite with an aesthetically pleasing, idyllic Impressionist painting projected onto the cyclorama. While it looks nice, it doesn’t fit.
From a director’s perspective, the whole production and performance plays out like a tragedy. The flickers of humour in the first half don’t land with the audience, who probably think they shouldn’t laugh because of its overwhelming bleakness. Saying that the comedy does elicit a response from the audience in the second half, suggesting that the balance of tragi-comedy may have only just been struck right. In terms of blocking, entrances and exits, often these actions are repetitive and the first half feels sluggish. The walkway above a disturbing hall of mirrors isn’t used that much and most of the action takes place centre stage. The music is minimal as well – it would seem the regular stream of background silence gives scenes a greater impact and tension.
There appears to a couple of problems in adapting the production for the big Lyric Theatre stage. For one thing it affected the positioning of actors and the workaround proxemics and relationships between characters.
The examination of Measure for Measure through the lens of the #MeToo Movement is the most engaging component of the production. Phelps and Grierson interpreted the focal scene between them very well. He is menacing, malicious, and perverse in his abuse of power. Numerous lines in the play possess an eerie relevance to contemporary society like: “I’ll tell the world what thou art”. Phelps brings an authentic strength of character in the face of a Patriarchal society. This emphasises the theme of justice and highlights the dichotomy of corruption and purity.
To summarise, the strength of this production lies within its focus and relevance to the contemporary movement against sexual harassment and assault. But, there is some uncertainty around the tone of the production and the comedy. As well as difficulties in its adaption for the large Lyric Theatre stage.
Reviewed on 1st October 2019. | Image: Helen Maybanks