August 1, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Measure for Measure (RSC/Live from Stratford-upon-Avon) @ The Broadway, Nottingham
Gregory Doran’s new Measure for Measure seemed, at times, to be almost defiantly setting itself against ‘relevance’. Eschewing the contemporary settings of several recent productions that have more explicitly responded to the #MeToo moment and the abuses of power in the highest offices (whether political, entertainment, sports), Doran returned to the text’s setting of Vienna, but updated to c.1910, the Vienna of Freud, suffrage, and rumbling international tensions in the pre-WWI period. The esoteric setting, typical of Doran’s work, was of debatable utility in advancing a reading of a text whose dialogue (‘Who will believe you?’) feels, in the current climate, unavoidably anachronistic; even Doran, in the pre-show interview, couldn’t resist remarking on the contemporary implications of casting a female Escalus (the excellent Claire Price) with far more experience than the man promoted over her. But the setting was incidental to a well-performed, if unchallenging, interpretation of the play.
One of Doran’s gifts as a director is in mining the more obscure reaches of a text, including material that many cut, to find value. For Measure for Measure, that meant developing the sense of the urban underclasses of Vienna, the very people directly affected by the sweeping strictures of the newly empowered Angelo (Sandy Grierson). Graeme Brookes wore full female costume as Mistress Overdone (I read the performance, which avoided camp and other drag conventions, as coding Overdone as a trans woman in a milieu where all other actors played according to conventional gender casting; I may be wrong), overseeing a motley crew of fabulously dressed prostitutes including Melody Brown’s Kate Keepdown, seen pushing around a pram containing Lucio’s crying child. Pompey (David Ajao) was a West Indian-accented immigrant, sticking out in an overwhelmingly white Vienna, and a spiv who worked the audience and even the camera (in one of the first direct acknowledgements of the filming that I’ve seen in an RSC Live broadcast). The oft-cut discussion of the King of Hungary, meanwhile, became an introduction to Joseph Arkley’s outstanding, urbane Lucio and his companions, who lounged among the sex workers while reading the papers and pontificating noisily on the events of the day. Right from the start, Vienna’s streets had a community.
This community was, of course, troubled. Michael Patrick’s Belfast-accented Elbow was deeply insecure, and his scene with Pompey before Escalus and Angelo was genuinely funny as Elbow marched up and down, blissfully unaware of what his wife was doing in the brothel, and throwing out increasingly angry accusations, while Froth (Tom Dawze) stood drunkenly in his y-fronts, barely able to stand up and smiling gormlessly. Pompey was in his element as he deployed misdirection by slamming his hands repeatedly on the judges’ table, offered long-winded diatribes on wounded pride without ever actually saying anything of substance, and wittily turned the judges’ words back on them (‘Is your trade lawful?’ / ‘If the law would allow it’ was beautifully delivered without hesitation). Yet the next time we saw Pompey, he was being brutally beaten by the vengeful Elbow as he was hauled to prison. Lucio’s callous refusal to acknowledge the bloodied, pleading black man as the police dragged him offstage was a distressing indictment of Lucio, though the production did little to capitalise on the resonance of this image.
Arkley, with his immaculate suit and moustache, the little handkerchief that he pulled out so that he wouldn’t have to kneel on the dirty ground before the Duke, and an air of insufferable superiority, was perfect. His very presence was toxic, his love of gossip and ability to see the smut in the most innocent of statements turning every conversation of which he was a part into a series of traps. While the easier laughs of dramatic irony as Lucio unknowingly insulted the Duke to the Duke’s face were underwhelming, Arkley’s performance made effective use of more complex business, such as an extended lighting of his own cigarette in several stages to illustrate Claudio’s fornication. Amid the stratified underworld of Vienna, Lucio represented the untouchable, the kind of dapper, gentlemanly-passing rogue who could watch and laugh as the trans and black workers were arrested; his ultimate comeuppance, seen as he pushed a pram with a screaming baby offstage while Kate walked firmly behind him, felt like a well-earned enforcement of responsibility.
For all of the horror of Pompey’s beating, the prison ended up being a kind of haven in which a nicely choreographed sequence saw the citizens of Vienna happily getting along together in the relative protection of the barred walls. The implication was that so many people had been arrested that Pompey was indeed familiar with all of them, and the community sorted itself out. The retention of the Abhorson scenes was welcome, with Patrick Brennan’s Abhorson an enthusiastic axe-wielder. Barnardine (Brookes again. with Brummie accent) was another highlight, poking his head out from a trapdoor that released an unbearable stench into the air, and laughing in the face of attempts to order him to his execution. He mimicked Abhorson’s axe-wielding technique, and politely but firmly told Pompey and the Duke he’d have no execution today. The moment didn’t quite set up the odd climax in the final scene, in which Barnardine was freed – the cameras didn’t catch his face as clearly as would have helped, but he appeared to run off crying, suggesting that he’d been effectively institutionalised by his long stay in the prison; an early sign of the Duke not understanding quite how his beneficence would go down.
In the main plot, Grierson played Angelo as a tortured, repressed man who wore a cilice in the form of a spiked chain around his thigh, stained with blood (a la The Da Vinci Code’s extremist Catholic terrorist). This self-mortifying, Scottish-accented puritan spoke quietly but showed an innate impatience even in early scenes as he bustled Escalus off for their first meeting and left the arraignment of Pompey prematurely. He was overwhelmed by Isabella, gazing thunderstruck upon her as she got into her stride while campaigning for Claudio, and at the end of his scene he slumped in front of his desk and remained there for the whole of the intervening scene until her return, at which point he gradually exerted his authority until he grabbed her from behind and placed his hand on her crotch, a gesture of power followed up by his ‘Who will believe you?’ Immediately before the Duke’s return he appeared in soliloquy with hair messed up and clothes askew, experiencing the panic of conscience and fear of reprisal. Yet while he burst into anger while Isabella (Lucy Phelps) and Mariana (Sophie Khan Levy) accused him, he accepted the sentence of execution with nodding and agreement, his tendency towards self-punishment returning and informing his acceptance of the rule of law.
Isabella was a serious and earnest figure, first seen leading the blind Sister Francisca (Karina Jones) onstage [on a side note, despite the RSC’s trumpeting of its casting of three actors with disabilities in this ensemble, the fact that Jones and Amy Trigg as Juliet had only nine speeches between them in two tiny roles didn’t feel like celebration of this talent]. Lucy Phelps’s performance was at its most powerful when she broke out of her frowning stoicism and gave full vent to her emotions; the news of Claudio’s execution reduced her to a quivering mess on the floor, first screaming then biting down on her fist while the Duke comforted her. Better yet was her relationship with Mariana, which in their brief bits of shared stage time became a deep solidarity between the two women. Mariana’s appeal to Isabella to plead for Angelo’s life came just after Isabella had learned the Duke’s real identity, and her shocked looks about her suggested that she felt entirely isolated and betrayed by the men of this world, and thus chose to devote herself entirely to Mariana’s support. Her fierce grabbing and embracing of James Cooney’s Claudio when he was freshly revealed to the world was passionate and unquestioning, but the final image of her giving an anguished cry in response to the Duke’s proposal of marriage (applauded by the citizens) showed how trapped she still felt.
The Duke was a difficult figure to work out. The production began with a Viennese waltz, designed presumably to establish setting, in which the Duke looked distressed and needed to break away. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set situated a selection of mirrors at the back of the stage, behind which a screen displayed some fairly impressive projections of deep settings – long corridors, a train station for the Duke’s return, a prison, suggesting as ever Doran’s frustration at the lack of a proscenium arch and a proper cyclorama. The mirrors set up a series of recurrent stagings in which characters looked out from behind the mirrors, both diegetically to spy on action and as projections of the onstage characters, as when the Duke near the end of the first half reached out to a ‘reflection’ that showed Angelo mimicking his own actions back at him. Robin Lough’s screen direction did the production something of a disservice in its choice to focus on very close-up images that often entirely cut out the people who were listening or present in scenes, and the angles at which the mirrors were shot, which confused the space of the stage and made it very difficult to interpret the effects. However, the impression I got was that the mirrors were working in conjunction with the Duke’s role to emphasise the ways in which the mirrors that had begun by reflecting the richly dressed courtiers back at themselves were now being used to reflect a scrutinised and scrutinising society back at itself.
Antony Byrne’s performance seemed unsure of its tone. For much of the first half of the play, Byrne’s Duke was almost entirely serious; in the second, he resorted increasingly to comic explosions of sarcasm and scorn. Nothing in the performance, to my mind, prepared for the sudden proposal of marriage at the end, and the Duke’s own lack of sureness translated into a reading of the character that I failed to get my head around. He was ably supported by Amanda Harris as a much more interesting Provost, one of several women in positions of authority in this pre-suffrage world. Harris’s Provost was stoic and rock-steady, quietly supporting the right but anxious about her own position. She had a wonderful comic moment as she entered in bloodied overalls to reveal the head of Ragozine from a bucket, happily stomping through the stage with dismembered body parts to the disgust of everyone else; and she was more clearly than usual in cahoots with the Duke as she stage-managed the final reveal of Claudio. Her solidness contrasted with the Duke blowing in all directions – scornful then furiously angry with Lucio, compassionate towards Isabella, disgusted by Barnardine etc. Byrne’s strongest moments came as he resumed his place as Duke, going to sit between Escalus and Angelo, but pausing as Angelo attempted to sit with him and deliberately leaving Angelo half-standing, half-crouching in a position of humility.
The textual insight, deep community and confident performances made this a solid Measure for Measure, but I remained at the production’s end unclear as to why it had been put on. As the RSC’s ‘no repeats’ policy reaches its last few plays, the company is committed to a programming strategy driven by play-first, rationale-second, and to locate a play that has arguably become the most urgent for the present moment so firmly in the past – and to stage scenes of a woman being dismissed while making claims of sexual assault, or of a black man being beaten by the police, without any meaningful commentary on those images – didn’t, for me, make a compelling case for it. In many ways, the production never entirely transcended the Viennese Waltz reflected in mirrors with which it began – pretty, skilled, and soon over.