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.