Measure for Measure
Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon. Saturday 27th July 2019.
This is a play where Shakespeare leaves us with more problems than he solves. That's what problem plays do. Astonishingly relevant and timely, Measure for Measure challenges patriarchy, injustice, misrule, abnegation of personal responsibility, abuse of power, sexual abuse, control of women. This is Shakespeare’s #MeToo play. Espousing the cause, Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, presents a bold, cutting edge drama, but one which is also full of sensitivity. And guile. Not quite a tragedy. Obsessed with morality. Comic in the extreme, at times. Define this production more succinctly if you will. It doesn’t want to be boxed in.
We witness an intense exploration of character and values. Angelo (Sandy Grierson), a powerful, stand-in ruler demands sex from a woman, a virgin, in return for promises that we just know he will not keep. Isabella (Lucy Phelps), a novice nun, thinks she is on her own. Forced to choose between sacrificing herself to save her brother’s life and preserving her personal honour / religious purity, Isabella rejects Angelo’s advances and now it’s her word against his.
“To whom should I complain?” she asks herself.
It seems to me that the human quality most essential to the resolution of this story is strength. True, inner strength. And most of it is female. Isabella is determined to not be a victim. She calls out the evil in front of her and demands compassion. Soon after, in a development that seems a shade unrealistic, and is certainly not that common, she finds support when she least expects it. This creates an opening for justice to be delivered in the end. Morality, dignity and human life may all be saved.
Isabella (Lucy Phelps) with Angelo (Sandy Grierson)
All images: Helen Maybanks (c) RSC
When the struggles of the heart exit left, the comedy abounds. Bawdiness and ribaldry come to town. Mistress Overdone (Graeme Brookes) cavorts around the stage. Clearly not a mistress, but still a delightfully coarse prototype for Restoration comedy villainesses. Then come the punks. Who knew that was a word for prostitutes? And who knew it was a Shakespearean word? Here’s another one. Lucio (Joseph Arkley) is a fantastic. Have you ever seen that word in a dramatis personae before? Definition: a flamboyant bachelor; in this play one who cannot stop himself from making sly innuendoes and scything criticisms. Eventually we see him forced into an unwanted family life. Haha! Shakespeare has great fun here with a bucketful of morals.
Punks in Vienna
Pimp (David Ajao) with Lucio the fantastic (Jospeh Arkley)
Grandest of all, in his own estimation at least, we have The Duke (Antony Byrne). Shouty in the opening scene, evidently unhappy about something. Inexplicably, he pretends to go abroad, but really he’s just around the corner. Undercover, he becomes a kinder, wiser man. Covers himself up in a friar's attire and then discovers himself. But he’s still a control freak and a drama king. Not quite a hero. And all the time, his deputy is misusing his newly obtained power.
The Duke of Vienna, undercover in the habit of a friar (Antony Byrne)
Angelo, the deputy, and Isabella's tormentor, is the arch villain of the piece. The last time I saw Sandy Grierson he played Aeneas, a slightly reluctant suitor to Chipo Chung’s passionate Dido in Dido, Queen of Carthage. Here, Grierson's character is much more forward. So far forward he's offside. He brilliantly resembles the archetypal male snake in the disreputable echelons of show business. Initially quiet. Unnerving. Despicable. Creepy. Lecherous, greasily blond, and monstrous.
The setting, Vienna, is unusual for Shakespeare. Did the Bard ever travel to Austria? Did Vienna have such a strict code of morality and such harsh laws against sexual relationships outside of marriage? Laws apparently grounded more in the secular than the religious.
Angelo (Sandy Grierson), making Isabella an offer she has to refuse
Was Shakespeare suggesting that there was bawdiness in Elizabethan London too? Surely not! Did he even imagine that sexual corruption would be rife in London several hundred years later? Heaven forefend. On a Me Too front, could Shakespeare have envisaged a scene in the 21st century with Harvey Weinstein sitting opposite Lupita Nyong’o, behind closed doors, saying she could have the part if she would just do a little something for him?
I really want to say yes, because Shakespeare sees all things, not least since he is/was a time-travelling alien with a universal grasp of human life. A visionary who wanted to expose corruption and injustice, and to make others see things both as they are and how they should be. And this RSC production, it feels, is exactly what Shakespeare would have wished for. A thought-provoking, highly entertaining play. Moments of deep introspection and inner agony, mixed in with arresting physical spectacle and jolly wit. Constable Elbow (Michael Patrick) ties everyone up in knots with his clumsiness and his malapropisms. The costumes are eye-catching, the music rousing, and the set allows limitless opportunities for movement on and off stage. The RSC does this so well. They do everything well.
Constable Elbow (Michael Patrick), the law that leans on the common man
In the end, there is a resolution of sorts. But not everyone is happy, and not everything is put right. How could it be? A harsh lesson in life, perhaps. Some kind of social justice, for sure. Revenge that is not exacted; just threats and pardons and people of influence trying to do the right thing in public. But this is not a life to aspire to. There is still much to answer for. And though it's a theatrical triumph it's also a great shame that we still need Shakespeare to put society straight with this kind of exposé.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
All photos: Helen Maybanks © RSC
See the Connected Cultures feature: Problems, Problems, Problems