saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Measure for Measure
15th May 2016
Photography © Debbie Scanlan
Frankly, it's a little depressing how easily we forget old Shakey used to write comedies. Yes, he wrote a bunch of history plays and tragedies, but this was a man who knew how to have a laugh. Far too often are theatre makers so awestruck by his reputation as one of the greatest writers of all time that they take their production far too seriously regardless of the text's genre and well, a lot of the inherent humour is lost. In this version of Measure for Measure by Heady Conduct Theatre, we're reminded just how funny Shakespeare can be when done right. Co-directors Simon Rodda and Rebecca Rogers add a touch of irreverence and improv, fusing the tale with music and laughter, with the regular shifts in tone between the serious moments and the hilarious ones always completely fluid. It's a real gem of an adaptation.
When Duke Vincentio (Matthew Darcy) decides to leave Vienna for a bit, putting his number two, Angelo (Blake Kubena) in charge, in no time at all we learn that power corrupts. Claudio (Luke de Belder) gets his girlfriend pregnant, Angelo sentences him to death, then promises to overturn the somewhat harsh sentence if Claudio's ever so pretty sister, Isabella (Rogers) agrees to sleep with him. Turns out Angelo isn't exactly Vienna's moral compass after all. With this being one of the Bard's scripts, life is never simple and there are plenty of twists and turns and cases of mistake identity. The confusion is punctuated with interactions from wonderful supporting characters like Claudio's drunken mate, Lucio (Rodda), whose delivery is gloriously spot on. His scenes with the disguised Duke are a particular hoot, obvious and inevitable though the outcome may be.
Although Gemma Clough plays a number of minor parts well, it is her understated yet powerful portrayal of Angelo's ex-fiancée Mariana which really stands out. Her bitter melody about being abandoned echoes across the expanse of water between the back of The Rose and the audience, her words full of pain and establishing Mariana as a real character in her own right. Jack Sudgen's haunting music helps add more depth to what is an often sidelined role. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Measure for Measure staged, but this is the first in which I've felt Mariana is far more than a mere plot device. Sure, she's used for laughs later on in the Duke's big reveal (who isn't?) but she's introduced to us as a wronged woman, who maintains a dignified distance, only re-entering Angelo's life on the instruction of a friar. Whilst her existence may be convenient to the Duke's plans, she is someone we sympathise with and someone whose interests we wish to see served.
Whilst using men to play nuns and having them put on funny high pitched voices is very Shakespearean, giving them thick-rimmed black plastic specs isn't in keeping with the time period. However, it reinforces the farcical element to the play and we're left laughing at their antics, no matter how obvious the set up to a joke. Similarly, the provost (Clough) wears a skirt suit - she's smart enough for the role, yet not dressed in 17th-century couture. There's a mix of styles in Amy Harris and Rogers' costume design, however it seems fitting, these little tweaks to the clothing mirroring the little tweaks here and there to the language.
Truthfully, I had forgotten how much I like Measure for Measure as a script and I'm grateful to the company for putting on such a thoughtfully cut down and updated version which is every bit as comedic as it should be. The little asides in modern day English are entertaining rather than jarring, and there's even enough ambiguity to make what I've always felt to be a bit of a strange ending seem far more natural. This is as good a Shakespeare that you'll find anywhere in London, and it's only fitting that it's found a home at The Rose. Vienna's highly moral rules be damned; beg steal or borrow a ticket to one of the remaining performances.
Measure for Measure opened on 10th May and runs until 29th May 2106 at The Rose.
Nearest tube station: London Bridge (Northern, Jubilee)