October 14, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Measure for Measure @ Shakespeare’s Globe

The Globe has two key advantages in staging Measure for Measure. The first, to which I’ll return, is that everyone is always watching. In a play so concerned with surveillance, overhearing, manipulating events from behind the scene, the absolute exposure of the Globe stage breaks down any illusion of privacy, forcing every character to account for themselves repeatedly, whether to others onstage or to the surrounding audience. The second advantage is that a rowdy city is not merely an offstage issue but a present concern. The watchers become the watched and the attempts of actors to capture the attention and manage the behaviours of its very visible spectators are replicated in the play’s own concern with public and private morality in the suburbs.

As such, Dominic Dromgoole’s fine production kicked off with one of the best pre-show uses of the Globe’s environment I’ve yet seen. Two Wendy House-sized brothels were hauled into the pit and the ensemble (led by Dean Nolan, moving from the Sam Wanamaker to the main house and increasingly establishing himself as a Globe staple) flooded the space as prostitutes, bawds, and one particularly indignant puritanical preacher. Actors targeted the predominantly teenage audience (this was a weekday matinee in October) to beg for kisses, accuse spectators of fornication and play drinking games, and eventually they grabbed the preacher and dragged him out above the audience’s heads. The atmosphere was raucous, the pace fast and disconcerting, the audience hysterical. Yet onstage, Dominic Rowan’s Duke sat in a chair facing away from the clamour, still and unmoved. The sense of a ruler disconnected – deliberately or not – from his people was palpable.

Rowan’s Duke was a quick-thinking and humorous man, often throwing out half-hearted Hail Marys when in disguise to waiting penitents as his mind raced on to the next challenge. His occasional diffidence allowed him to find humour in bathos, constantly playing down his own dignity and enjoying raising his eyebrows at the audience. The strategy worked effectively to get the audience onside, especially as he did not have events entirely under his control but reacted with wit and shock to what occurred. His awkwardness with Isabella emerged early as the two drew close and then hastily took out their rosaries, and such touches of humanity went a long way toward prioritising his (sometimes desperate) attempts to arrange events as the main narrative.

This was not just the Duke’s play, however, and the strong ensemble benefitted further from some simple rearranging of text that broke up and interspersed scenes, not only rendering the action snappier but also appearing to give more time to minor characters such as Nolan’s frenetic Elbow, who was regularly found throwing down fight moves, commando rolling to chase suspects, or engaging in screaming matches with the bawds over his wife. The prison scenes especially, with extras catcalling from behind the bars that filled the discovery space and side entrances, captured a gloriously collaborative chaos as Barnardine (Nolan yet again) emerged, bloody and clad in animal furs, to slam his bindings on the stage and whip up the prison (and audience) into a defiant cry against his being executed today.

The comedy was venal throughout, and Petra Massey’s Mistress Overdone was notable for the amount of time she spent on her back with her skirts over her head, especially during a bizarre dumbshow with Elbow which involved him forcing her accidentally into all kinds of suggestive positions while restraining her from drunkenly interrupting Escalus and Angelo. In the same scene Dennis Herdman’s Froth found himself trouserless and exposed, while Trevor Fox as Pompey held forth in Geordie accent and with pointed cane, used to point out all the innuendos he could find in the text and then some. At times the comedy was too aggressively sexual, however; in one particularly unpleasant moment – unpleasant primarily for being played for laughs – Brendan O’Hea’s Lucio wandered the stage and squeezed the breasts of the outraged Prioress (Naana Agyei-Ampadu); at other points throughout, various male characters forced kisses, thrusts and hands upon Mistress Overdone. On one hand this did a lot to establish the general atmosphere of sexual aggression that bled into the main plot, but on the other it fell into the trap of holding up a harassment culture as not only inevitable but funny. While there was a small chorus of cries when Mistress Overdone was punched to the ground by an over-zealous Jailer later in the play, I’d have liked to see a little more done to imply throughout that ignoring consent is not simply amusingly indecorous.

On this note, I’m interested in my own reactions to seeing the play with such a young audience. It was visceral to watch Measure for Measure accompanied by cries of shock (at Angelo forcing himself on Isabella; at the Duke proposing; even at Claudio’s ‘resurrection’) and calls of sympathy and joy (most notably at the play’s conclusion). But this play’s particular issues surrounding sexual assault, chauvinism and coercion continue to be prescient, and while I certainly don’t believe theatres have a responsibility to sanitise, I was reminded of how easy it is to make anything funny at the Globe if not framed with the appropriate critique. This production, I think, did a decent job, but I remain concerned at the tolerance for, if not approval of, ‘funny’ sexual violence in early modern productions, to which the Globe is particularly susceptible.

Yet all the rutting and noise was designed to bring the quiet central story into focus. Kurt Egyiawan was an understated Angelo, quiet and dignified. His soliloquies seemed brief – an effect of the textual rearrangements – and his shift to lust was managed with subtlety. Mariah Gale matched him for calm dignity as Isabella, dressed plainly and with her hair tied up in a cap. Isabella’s withdrawal to the convent seemed from the start a way for her to hide from a world which reduced her repeatedly to plaintive tears and occasional disdain; she was not scared in Angelo’s presence, but her discomfort at having to engage with the world was clear. The dynamic of their initial scene was of a still Angelo being approached by an imploring Isabella; their second, Angelo circling her and encroaching on her space. When the moment of aggression came it was handled exceptionally well. Angelo attempted to pick Isabella up as he advanced on her, but lost his balance and she threw him to the ground, from where she denounced him with full force, shouting her intent to go to the town and proclaim him (and here, I heard the note of blackmail that is in the text but rarely comes out so clearly in performance). From his position on the ground, Angelo’s ‘Who will believe you?’ was all the more sinister for his own temporary powerlessness, and she stood shaking and beginning to sob as he got to his feet and reasserted his dominance. This was followed by a more aggressive assault which lasted for only a couple of seconds (accompanied by audible cries from audience members) before Angelo pulled himself away and put his head into his hands, but it left Isabella on the floor of the stage, her skirts around her thighs and her spirit broken.

This more serious edge to the play was given due weight, and Gale carried much of the emotional heft in a humourless but impassioned performance. When meeting with Claudio (Joel MacCormack) she began with an attempt to stand firm but began weeping again when he pressed her on how he might be reprieved, and the two eventually tussled with one another, clutching at each other in desperation to be understood by the other before the Provost (a stalwart Dickon Tyrrell) and the Duke pulled them apart. Later, when she received the news of Claudio’s execution, she simply reached up and pulled the cap from her head, leaving it on the floor as she announced she would tear at Angelo, the gesture demonstrating more effectively than the words the shift in her character at this point.

Pleasingly, while O’Hea played Lucio for laughs, there was also plenty in the character to despise, and his sarcasm pointed up the severity of the main plot. Strutting the stage in heeled shoes and swaying his hips, this effete Lucio was perverse in his insistence on puns and sexual gibes even at the most serious of moments, but he became the semi-sympathetic embodiment of the licence expunged at the start of the play, especially as he refused to succour the furious Pompey and snarked at the women in the final scene. His comeuppance was a moment of both comic relief and necessary scourging of the remaining vice in Vienna, and I felt that I saw something in O’Hea’s performance of the morality aspect of the character, the Vice figure that sticks to the play’s hero as a burr. Pompey, by contrast, became more of an innocent Everyman – even if he had his own vices, his terror at the near-silent Abhorson sharpening his knife and his blunt management of the prison (as well as his identification of old clients among the crowd – fittingly, I was the first, becoming the ‘ginger … not much in request’) allowed him to serve as an audience proxy, stumbling through this bizarre world.

The concluding scene was staged in full view of the pit, extras joining the groundlings to experience the final revelations as an overtly public show. Here the stolidness of Escalus (Paul Rider), the Provost and the dignified Mariana (Rosie Hilal) was the presiding tone, demanding a formality for the scene which Lucio repeatedly disrupted, setting up his own fall. Mariana was strong throughout, her attempts to find smiles while describing her situation to the Friar instantly endearing. That the scene stumbled into an undignified tussle between the ‘prisoners’ and the authorities was inevitable and very funny, allowing the Duke to emerge from a scrum and for Lucio to be the last by some way to notice. But the final revelations managed to be genuinely moving. Claudio’s hood was lifted and the Duke almost immediately raised his hand nervously to Isabella, leaving her stunned, making a rare gesture of shock towards the audience and collapsing into a chair. Again, it was the audience’s reaction which struck me most, a mixture of outrage, surprise and pleasure in the double twist that Isabella became the proxy for as she sat down. Later, when the Duke again stretched out his hand, Isabella stood (and now the audience reaction was an ‘aw’), but it was not until after his final lines that she herself stretched out her hand and moved toward him, taking his hand to begin the final dance. The feeling here was one of an earned happy ending, Isabella taking the time to work through her shock  and her mixed feelings before choosing herself to accept the Duke’s offer.

As far as Measure for Measure can be a comedy without compromising the complex moral issues at the play’s heart, Dromgoole and his fine ensemble succeeded. As an event it played irresistibly with its audience, insisting on the communal atmosphere of a sordid London while putting that atmosphere under implied threat, and it allowed the audience to enjoy the lack of decorum while also (mostly through Gale’s performance) insisting on the severity of Angelo’s actions and demanding emotional investment – an investment that was rewarded also in the final accepting looks of Angelo and Mariana for one another. A fittingly balanced production.

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