October 14, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Measure for Measure @ The Young Vic

One key moment in Measure for Measure exemplified the difference between Dominic Dromgoole’s production at the Globe and this, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s very different take at the Young Vic. In Dromgoole’s production, when Mariah Gale’s Isabella promised to claw out Angelo’s eyes, she simply and quietly removed her cap, revealing for the first time her long hair, and stated coolly her intentions towards her abuser. When Romola Garai delivered the same line at the Vic, she screamed blue murder directly into a live video camera lens before collapsing, sobbing, into a heap of naked inflatable sex dolls. For both Isabellas this was a key moment, the transition from piety to (momentarily) bloody revenge, but the semiotics of the delivery point to the very different tones of the two pieces.

Hill-Gibbins directed the very fine (and the very Quentin Letts-baiting) The Changeling at the Young Vic and Edward II at the National, and he reunited most of the creative team of the latter for a very similar approach to Measure for Measure; at times, too similar. Here again was the ruler supported by a gender-reversed administrator in power suit and high heels (Sarah Malin’s Escalus for the previous play’s Exeter); here again was a brash American challenging the dignity of the court (tom Edden’s Pompey for Gaveston); and here again was a piecemeal set DIY set that ended up being stacked into a jumble of pieces – here, the aforementioned sex dolls, which filled the stage at the production’s opening and which were moved and used throughout the play.

More overtly, here again was the extensive use of live video feed, often leaving the main stage empty while offstage scenes were shown on a video wall (a technique used also by Cheek by Jowl for Ubu Roi). If this is to be Hill-Gibbins’s signature device for early modern drama then it needs to be reined in. I’ll concentrate on the positives in a moment, but it regularly killed the momentum of the production dead, anchoring actors to static positions facing a hand-held camera and destroying the impact of the physical space. Further, the intellectual rationale for its use was woolly – where Ubu Roi positioned its camera as a specific character/chorus figure’s gaze, here the camera was alternately the Friar’s own vlog, an aggressive interrogation device, Pompey’s prison broadcasts or simply a roving documentary team. I love the integration of live video into a production, but too often here it seemed to be for simple aesthetic variety rather than for a concerted purpose.

This was a shame, because the presence of surveillance cameras makes sense for Measure for Measure, and the device frequently worked well. When interviewing Natalie Simpson’s heavily pregnant Julietta, Zubin Varla’s Duke shone a dazzling camera light directly into her face, his booming voice turning the confessional into a terrifying grilling, which Julietta then turned around by turning directly into the camera and speaking her defiance. Control of the frame – as by Pompey as he held court in a corrupt prison, or by the hulking Barnardine (Matthew Wynn) when he refused to be executed – gave the play’s victims a chance to be heard on their own terms, and in the latter instance the view switched to another camera to show the previous cameraperson quailing before the terrifying prisoner.

For most of the production, though, the camera’s function was to mediate between two stage spaces normally divided by a wall – an empty box downstage and a large bare room upstage, which once walled off became the prison for most of the production’s duration. The separation of rooms allowed for the prison to become a much more developed environment, especially once the hundred-or-so inflatable dolls were piled up in there. The prisoners lounged on benches or chairs; Julietta went into labour in a corner; Pompey (with a New York drawl and artisan beard) and Raphael Sowole’s Froth smoked and took money for use of the dolls; Barnardine glowered from a corner; and Hammed Animashaun’s Provost (conflated with Elbow, in an odd series of textual inversions that included the story about the wife but undid the malapropisms to make it more serious) screamed for music to be shut down and for the prisoners to behave. The entrance to the prison was in the downstage area, so the audience regularly watched people arrive and be admitted or thrown out. Thematically this rather ruins what I see as the important elision between public and private in the play, demarcating public and private spaces literally (and also literalising, for example, Pompey’s enumeration of his previous clients by having him point out specific sex dolls). Yet it also created the claustrophobic, squalid atmosphere of the prison that made sense of the Duke’s discoveries as he attempted to navigate his own city’s underworld.

The opening image of the ensemble writhing in a heap of inflatable sex dolls made the point that everyone in the city was tainted by the sex trade, and the anonymity and crude reduction of these automata was a constant visual presence, intruding on all the scenes even from the background and insisting on the venal as a shared vocabulary. Varla’s Duke was a conflicted leader, forcing Escalus and Angelo to wade through the inflatable bodies to take instructions from him, but also wracked by what appeared to be genuine Catholic guilt over the city’s corruption. The Duke was a complex presence throughout the play, proactive and often aggressive. With his sleeves rolled up, he appeared as a pugilistic force, though was also put on the defensive when confronted by Lucio or Barnardine. He seemed to be interested in doing the right thing, but his relative hot-headedness made his motives difficult to scrutinise, and the play’s ending cast further shadows over his actions.

The Duke was not the only watcher in the play. For most of the first half two figures loitered downstage of the dividing wall at either end of the stage. Cath Whitefield’s Mariana was a broken figure, her spiky hair and dishevelled white dress evoking the young jilted woman. When the Duke finally mentioned her to Isabella, an image of Angelo appeared on the back wall and Mariana was discovered with a phone pressed to her ear, singing aggressively along to Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’. Her rage and frustration were a fine counterpoint to Isabella, and her passionate, perhaps unstable obsession with Angelo made her a threatening figure. Opposite her was Lucio, in a revelatory performance by John Mackay. In Mackay’s hands, Lucio wasn’t a bad sort. His wry worldliness was matched with a sincerity in his pleas to Isabella, and his sorrow for Claudio was genuine. While onstage he regularly watched the Duke, and there was a sense that while his accusations against the Friar were obviously false, his suspicion of the character’s motives was real. Mackay found a Lucio closer in spirit to Jacques than to a fop, his quiet Scottish lilt sounding as a voice of reason for the most part (although his brief brawl with the Duke as both battered one another with sex dolls rather undermined any dignity either of them had). While Lucio’s comeuppance was still merited after his many interruptions, the production went a long way to making him an audience identification figure.

Audience identification was clearly uppermost in the production team’s minds. As well as swingeing cuts to bring the production down in under two hours flat, the text was regularly (and very inconsistently) modernised, particularly to make sexual terms (punk, geld) unambiguous, and this contributed especially to making Lucio’s lines clearer. Pompey, too, often spoke in contemporary English, and the production as a whole felt aimed at making its issues part of a modern discourse around sex. This was most effective, inevitably, in the scenes between Isabella and Angelo, which were much more successful than the Globe’s in presenting sexual violence as thoroughly shocking. Both Garai and Paul Ready as Angelo gave excellent, emotional performances. Garai’s Isabella was discovered speaking pious platitudes as she worked single-handedly to clear the sex dolls from the main stage, and this purposeful dedication was key to her Isabella. She pressed Angelo hard and, especially in the loaded speech where she describes what she would subject her body to rather than sleep with him, approached him with force. He, on the other hand, was regularly seen clutching a Bible and kneeling in prayer, but his repressed nature was shown to be a power game. Once his ultimatum was clear he approached her with ominous slowness, she backing away while trying to remain polite, until eventually he forced her to the floor, pinning her face down and sitting astride her. His intent here was not to follow through on the sexual assault but rather to demonstrate his absolute dominance of her body and voice, reducing her to silence; her turn to the audience after, in one of the production’s rare moments of true direct address, indicated her feeling of absolute isolation.

The production sped quickly to a climax, eliding scenes carefully to keep the action moving quickly – Isabella was taken directly to Mariana on the first mention of her, for instance. The cameras of the prison environment kept characters such as Julietta, Froth and Pompey regularly visible, so that when the prison walls were finally drawn back for the final scene their reappearance suggested a more general enlargement. The bringing together of the two worlds for the Duke’s return made thematic sense, and had the added effect of visually suggesting him walking from the prison environment directly to the public stage, he becoming the main connecting thread between all the characters.

The production’s conclusion, however, showed the dangers of a Duke with too much oversight. Varla stage-managed the climactic revelations at breakneck speed, rushing about the stage and dragging the various parties to their places of supplication or defence, and by the end of the scene was forcing everyone into a line as if for a photograph, shaking every hand and acknowledging every fate. His emergence as the Duke was handled very quietly, Lucio taking off his habit and revealing him instantly, but everyone reacting in stunned silence rather than embarrassment. The Duke didn’t give Angelo and Mariana time to marry, throwing them forcibly together and then tearing Angelo away and throwing him to the ground. Later, as his machinations wound to their close, he pulled Julietta and her newborn baby over to Claudio where the family unit stood in awkward silence; condemned Lucio and left him sobbing downstage centre; pushed a hunched-over Angelo into Mariana’s pawing hands; and yanked Isabella into line with him, where in the play’s final seconds she stood sobbing as the full realisation of what was happening dawned on her. The speed at which the Duke pulled everyone into place and stood there smiling and triumphant among his broken subjects offered to critique his actions, but came so out of the blue and with so little pause for reflection (even a couple of seconds longer before the blackout would have done it) that the final audible reaction of the audience was one of hilarity rather than disquiet.

This was a bold Measure for Measure that made a potent case for the play’s contemporaneity and established a specific and effective stage dynamic, but at the cost, perhaps, of a certain amount of subtlety as it made its blunt statements. The anonymous bodies of the sex dolls implied that everyone in this Vienna could be reduced to a set of monetisable orifices, and while the Catholic imagery that regularly plastered the video wall seemed to imply a deeper set of values at stake, the characters were often (deliberately) as hollow as the dolls themselves, living puppets of a Duke so disdainful of the inflatable ones he stepped over at the production’s start. The empty and abortive group portrait at the end, its participants lacking any agency over their own position, suggested that much more was needed than one man’s tricks to redeem this society.

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