Friday, 10 February 2006

Measure for Measure - Metra Theatre 2006

Measure for Measure
Metra Theatre, London, UK.

A very modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s controversial comedy by the newly formed Metra Theatre company. This production incorporates music, dance, aerial work, and some damn fine acting, and is described as tackling Measure For Measure ‘with feminist foresight, socio-religious thinking and a bit of jive’.

With a small and bare performance space above a rather noisy pub, and an audience composed partly of football spectators rather than regular theatregoers, the company are left with only their skills as performers to keep the audience interested and entertained for ninety interval-free minutes. And this is a feat that they manage admirably.

The company enter the space in their underwear, dragging suitcases, and proceed to get dressed onstage whilst dancing to jive music. Throughout the performance the actors not onstage are seated throughout the audience, from where they interact with the scene, the audience, and each other, both in and out of character. Ploys are used to get the audience involved in the action: giving them balls to throw at a target painted on condemned Claudio’s chest; switching hats with them to confuse identity; making them carry messages onstage. This is all good fun and the audience seem to enjoy it. Between scenes the company also play at being an inept and egocentric theatre troupe: cues are feigned missed, costumes are mistaken, errors of judgement are made in personal interaction. This is funny: the audience laugh, barriers are broken down, and tension is eased after particularly heavy scenes. However, the technique used continually throughout the performance becomes a little wearing. I felt that it was being used as a cover for any potential problems that might actually arise during the performance, as though the actors were pre-empting any possible mistakes by saying ‘I meant to do that’. Yet this is a professional company: they know their material, they know their cues, and nothing is left to chance. They have nothing to apologise for.

The characters in this piece are very clearly defined. Josephine Rogers gives us an Isabella simmering with emotion, a woman of extremes; pure in spirit but angry at the world and at her inability to get results without making compromises. Joseph Cook as Angelo is a nasty piece of work - a small-minded man with a dangerously twisted idea of power. The scene in which Isabella returns to him to beg again for her brother’s life is one in which we see Angelo’s true colours. And in this production those colours are particularly dark, as discussion turns into altercation, and then hysteria, and then into near-rape. This is a powerful scene played admirably, and one that leaves the audience in uncomfortable silence. Both Angelo and Isabella speak their minds and their interaction is played as between equals, something that sadly is rarely seen in productions of this play.

Another interesting aspect of this production is the decision to have the concealed Duke played concurrently by several members of the cast. Whilst the Duke as himself is played by Simon Phillips, several actors at a time appear onstage portraying the Duke as Friar, taking it in turns to speak his lines. This is a novel idea and on the whole it works, ensuring that the concealment of the Duke is complete. However, it is rather confusing for anyone not familiar with the play, and lessens the impact of the revealment at the end. I also doubt the wisdom of including Tom Dye (who also plays Claudio) in this group of Friar Dukes, as this confuses the issue even further!

Another thing that this company does extremely well is to make clear their stance on certain issues within the play. Measure for Measure is well known for its contentious ending. The ambiguity caused by Isabella’s lack of response to the Duke’s proposal has thrown many a theatre company into leaving the issue open-ended. Not so Metra: they give us glorious clarity. As the Duke proposes to Isabella, she looks flustered but pleased. My heart sinks. And then the music starts up. To the tune of ‘You don’t own me’, she snatches away his staff and proceeds to beat him to the ground with it, before handing it to Mariana (Lee Diep Chu) who does the same to Angelo. Juliet (Francesca Hyde) is a little less brutal with Claudio. The three men are left looking rather lost, backed up against a wall, whilst the women continue to dance joyfully. For me, this is the definitive modern ending. Would Isabella have actually behaved like this? Probably not. Would she have wanted to? Perhaps. Should this have been her reaction? Definitely.

This is a lively and intelligent version of a well-loved play, and one that has enriched my understanding of the possibilities of Shakespeare’s text. I thoroughly recommend it. 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue

No comments:

Post a Comment