Measure for Measure

Playhouse, QPAC (Bell Shakespeare)


By William Shakespeare

Professional production

“Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, … plays such fantastic tricks as make the angels weep.”

Oh, that the phrase were displayed on the office wall of every president, prime minister and premier! It’s as true today as it was when Shakespeare wrote it 400 years ago, and it’s sentiments like this that make Measure for Measure as timeless as any Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.

Measure for Measure is often regarded as a difficult play, with its stern morality and thematic ambiguity, but if one regards it as a political drama, all the pieces fall into place. It has so much going for it the parade of knaves and fools, the ice-cold hypocritical politician, the shilly-shallying leader, the good man rendered politically impotent, the wronged penitent and the unfairly condemned why, you could set this play in almost any city in the First, Second or Third Worlds and it would still be relevant.

This is why John Bell’s production for the Bell Shakespeare Company is such a triumph, for Bell doesn’t play it as a period piece, but as a timeless drama that transcends what might be considered a an outdated moral issue and lifts it into the realm of the universal. And for me it ranks with any production of any Shakespeare play I’ve seen anywhere in the world in the last 30 years.

Not many people know the plot, so here goes. The Duke of Vienna has gone off for a bit of R&R, ostensibly leaving his cold-blooded deputy Angelo in charge of the dukedom, but actually hanging around disguised as a friar to see what Angelo will get up to. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief, but it sets the scene for what is to come, which is that Angelo refuses to commute the death sentence of a randy young man, Claudio, who against all the rules has got his girlfriend pregnant, even though he wants to marry her, and she him.

Enter his sister Isabella, trainee nun and chaste virgin for Christ, to plead to Angelo to spare her brother’s life, which he refuses to do unless she yields up her virginity to him. Shock, horror! Will she or won’t she? Which is more important her honour or his life?

Today of course it wouldn’t be an issue, but in Isabella’s time, it’s a choice between her eternal damnation and his brief punishment. Claudio doesn’t see it like this any more than we do “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; to lie in cold obstruction and to rot; this sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod” and begs her to save his life, but Isabella’s steely virtue cannot be breached.

Will she yield, or will she give in? Will Claudio die or be allowed to live? Will Angelo be unmasked, or will he get away with it? These questions give the play its power, for we long for justice, but cannot see how it can come about in this corrupt society, where power takes precedence over fair dealing.

If that were all there were to the play, it would be heavy going indeed. But it’s peopled with Shakespeare’s most delicious troop of low-lifes, whose language is more accessible to a 21st century audience than that of Macbeth’s Porter, or even Falstaff and his band of brothers. We have the pimp, the stupid constable, the Madam and the whores, the hangman and the hangers-on, who underline and counterpoint the moral dilemmas of their social betters.

And what a brilliant bunch they are Darren Gilshenan as Pompey the Pimp; Julian Garner in the dual roles of Froth the Fool and Abhorson the Executioner; Gracy Lears as Mistress Overdone, aging Queen of Tarts; David Barnes as Barnadine the Condemned, who refuses to be hanged until it suits him; and Paul Eastway as the self-serving constable Elbow a recognisable troop of tricksters and scoundrels each different from the other, but together making a Rogues’ Gallery worthy of painters like Hieronymus Bosch and his descendents Goya and Dali.

Robert Kemp’s design brings them all alive, with its busy set that becomes back alley, prison, nunnery and presidential palace with every change of Peter Neufield’s ingenious lighting design, and John Bell himself, who directs, brings out the humour implicit in their characters so that in themselves they mirror the moral ambiguities of the period which is ours as well as theirs.

Meanwhile, on another level but with even deeper ambiguities, we have the main players. Robert Alexander plays Escalus, the wise councillor who, as deputy to the Deputy Angelo, can have no influence on his evil overlord. Our hearts bleed for him as he must weigh up between his duty to his master and to his own conscience, and Alexander gets this dilemma just right. His performance stands out in its integrity, and I hope his voice holds out for the season, for he had a bad throat on the preview night, and had to be heavily miked.

The Duke, as the most problematic character in the play, is trapped in his own decision, to go away and leave the kingdom in the hands of a man he knows to be unworthy. Sean O’Shea is as disturbed by his own behaviour and the consequences of his actions as we are, and although we can neither forgive nor understand him, especially when he assumes that the virginal Isabella will yield to his charms rather than Angelo’s, at least we feel he has learned his lesson. It’s a difficult role, because his motives are unfathomable, but O’Shea convinces us of the fallibility of even the most powerful ruler.

Tamsin Carroll is Isabella, caught between her rigid virtue and her love for her brother, and she both irritates us and makes us feel for her, as she should: Michelle Doake plays the dual roles of the pregnant Juliet and the abandoned Mariana in the moated grange, most familiar to us from Tennyson’s poem, with equal confidence (her jazz rendition of “Take, oh take those lips away” is as good as anything Cleo Laine has done with Shakespeare’s songs); and Timothy Walters’ Claudio, afraid to die and pay the price of his sins, shows us the infantile morality of the character in its full selfishness.

Which leaves us with Angelo, the villain of the piece, “whose blood is very snow-broth” and who, “when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice”. Is he as evil as he seems, or has the Duke done him a disservice by leaving him to be the bad cop and clean up the mess the Duke has made of the kingdom? Christopher Stollery, stern and immovable even in his lechery, brings as much sympathy to this character as is possible without misreading the text, and the coldness with which he marks his passion makes him, like a snake, repellent yet fascinating at the same time, as we begin to understand why Mariana still desires him even after the way he treated her years ago. < BR>
So is the play tragedy or comedy? It’s a comedy in the classical meaning of the term, in that all’s well that ends well, as the good are rewarded and the bad are punished and I won’t spoil the end by telling you what happens to Angelo, except that for him it is a fate worse than death. But it’s a tragedy that almost happens, in that it exposes the evil inherent in individuals and in society, and the potential consequences for the innocent living under a corrupt regime.

That’s why it’s known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. But for our ambiguous age it’s a moral tale of great significance, which urges us, in the words of an even greater poet than Shakespeare, to “condemn not, and you will not be condemned … for the measure you give will be the measure that is given to you.”

Political leaders of every hue, take note.

Directed by John Bell

Lighting Peter Neufeld, design Robert Kemp

Playing until 3 September 2005.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one 20-minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 24th August 2005)