February 17, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

Measure for Measure (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford

Onto a bare stage strode Raymond Coulthard’s Duke. Smiling to the audience, he raised his arms and, with commanding gestures, caused the house lights to be brought down, the music to stop and the on-stage lamps to illuminate. From its very beginning, Roxana Silbert’s new production of Measure for Measure established the Duke’s absolute control of his domain, stage and city. Yet even more striking was the smile he wore as he manipulated his surroundings. This was a Duke who delighted in control, and in the display of control.

The Vienna of this production had structures of sexual control built into its very fabric. The Duke and Angelo both wore strap-on leather corsets as part of their daily costume, and the Duke was attended by French maids and dominatrices. The set included living props: two women in S&M gear stood either side of the stage with spiked lampshades on their heads, departing at the click of a finger when their absence was required. Upstage, hundreds of straightened whips hung from the ceiling, providing a translucent curtain behind which could be concealed the play’s various eavesdroppers, as well as silence scenes of Vienna’s underworld sex scene. And in noisy sequences, Lucio, Pompey and their fellows engaged in a series of submission and domination games, playing out collective fantasies of control.

The Duke’s own choice of role-playing servants and fetish furniture spoke to his flaunting of control, as did his use of magic. His various letters, commissions and seals appeared skilfully from nowhere in his hands, often accompanied by a knowing nod to the audience and appeal for applause. His insistence on drawing attention to his own skill served on the one hand to ingratiate him with the audience, but on the other to set him apart, inculcating the relationship of awe and submission that inevitably underpins the conjurer/spectator dynamic. If his clear skill and awareness meant that an audience could be assured that the play’s conclusion would be his, it perhaps remained unclear that this conclusion would be a selfless one.

It was thus within the Duke’s carefully constructed world that Angelo and Isabella’s conflict was played out. Jamie Ballard’s nervous, intense Angelo oddly retained the trappings of the Duke’s court, including the fetishised lamps who were instructed to leave before Isabella entered; perhaps pointing already to the incipient hypocrisy in his position. Sweating in Isabella’s presence, and almost petulant in his assumption of right, this Angelo was conflicted and insecure rather than dominant. A particularly amusing moment came in the final scene as the Duke instructed Angelo to laugh at Mariana’s claims, at which an artificial fixed grin belied by panicked eyes was forced onto the deputy’s face. His attempts to consolidate his position in the final scene sprung from the same panic, but when finally exposed, there were tears, and something of humility as he stood quietly next to his new wife.

Jodie McNee’s Isabella, a young and often emotional novice, made a decent foil. With her earthy Scouse accent, Isabella’s appeal was offered as a pragmatic and often weary appeal to mercy that, too often, she seemed not to believe in herself. Paul Chahidi’s Lucio took a strong role in setting her on, standing directly behind her during the initial interview and speaking into her ear in support. Yet there were moments of individually inspired spontaneity in her performance that humanised the character: she fell to her knees as Angelo announced that Claudio’s execution would happen tomorrow, the enormity of the moment suddenly hitting her. Later, she reacted with something approaching glee to the idea of the bed trick, the speed and confidence of her acceptance sitting uncomfortably with her earlier moral stance.

These central performances were muted, however, and the drama and interest of these scenes depended rather on the characters supporting them, as in the asides of the Duke and Lucio. What was at stake came alive in moments of extreme feeling, especially Isabella’s scream of rage at hearing of Claudio’s ‘death’; but these were few and far between. This muting wasn’t limited to these characters: Lucio and Mark Quartley’s Claudio laughed at Claudio’s initial arrest, and Claudio showed a sanguinity throughout his imprisonment tht was only belied by the look thrown at him by the heavily pregnant Juliet, brought on with him in 1.2 but taken away in a different direction to his apparent indifference. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision to depict a society so preoccupied with sex that emotional intimacy was denied, but if so then it made for a somewhat cool drama. The objectifying glances of the smitten Duke at the departing Isabella, and his sharing of a ‘Phwaoarh’ with the audience were symptomatic of an ongoing detachment from human feeling.

Where the production did succeed, however, was in the creation of a fluid and engaging underworld. From the first moment where Lucio lifted his shirt in order to remove a pair of nipple clips left over after a particularly steamy session, Silbert established a world that was engagingly frank in its embracement of the messy and illicit. The long banter between Pompey, Froth and Elbow may have resulted in a refreshing outburst of frustration from Angelo, and an amused condescension from Escalus, but remained entertaining in itself as Elbow hopped up and down in frustration and a leering Pompey directed Froth in a show of grief and repentance.

Within a fantastical environment (including a woman dressed as a fountain), the simple performances of the supporting characters went a long way towards grounding the play in a representation of reality. Bruce Alexander’s Provost, in particular, offered brusquely honest assessments of the stage action that established a straightforward, unsophisticated morality that undercut the machinations of the major characters, and his surprise at being offered a better position drew a sympathetic laugh from the audience. Annette McLaughlin’s Mistress Overdone offered an almost dignified defence of her profession, and the deeply-spoken Abhorson spoke calmly of his profession’s mystery. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Lucio. While the character retained much of his arrogance and idiocy, particularly in the final scene, he also acted for the most part as a voice of reason and reflection, offering a practical and sensitive commentary on the plays’ problems. In Chahidi’s hands, the character retained his comic value in his occasional flamboyance and carelessness for the rules, but his relative consistence rendered his eventual punishment by the Duke rather petty.

Two standout comic performances served to lighten the tone throughout, but also to implicate the audience in the debauchery of Vienna. This was most explicit in the case of Joseph Kloska’s Pompey. Emerging from a trapdoor in his new role as executioner, he proceeded to acknowledge his old clients from the brothel among the audience, adlibbing freely about balding pates, stripy jumpers and the shocking ability of a lady in the second row to sleep at night after her crimes. More bizarre, but quite wonderful, was the cameo of Daniel Stewart (Patrick Stewart’s son) as Barnardine. Appearing first as a head, popping up through a flap in the stage, he screamed his drunken defiance at the audience. When he emerged fully, shirtless and with long lank hair and beard, he staggered about the stage, dodging Abhorson’s axe blows and belching in an entirely careless manner, with something of Bertie Wooster’s arrogance. In both his appearances, he drew spontaneous applause from an appreciative crowd.

The play culminated in a display of formal control, with the Duke’s seal dominating the stage and the Duke himself standing confidently centre-stage both in his own guise and as the Friar. As anticipated, the conclusion was clear directed through his own activity, the pieces falling into place perfectly. Yet the harshness of his initial threats against Mariana and Isabella, and the suddenness with which he announced his intent to marry Isabella, reminded us that he was primarily motivated by self-interest. In kneeling for his second proposal and holding out his hands, he finally exposed himself, and the few seconds for which Isabella remained silent felt long. For the first time ever in a production that I’ve seen, however, she eventually darted forward and took his hand, making a snap decision that rounded off the neatness of his schemes, while at the same time sacrificing her own independence of presence. The saucy jig that followed, with the actors rotating to engage in choreographed spanking, perhaps deliberately pointed out the underlying question of the final restitution of marital bonds – that these were not relationships built on equal measure, but on delicate balances of control and submission that resisted stability.

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