Benedict Andrews on “Measure for Measure”

“Images are the only true reality today… We cannot simply say ‘discard the images and you will see reality.’ If we discard the images, nothing remains, just some sort of abstraction.”

- Slavoj Zizek

Measure for Measure is my third Shakespeare staging concerned with the mechanics of power. Julius Caesar (2005) dealt with the theatrics of government, and War of the Roses (2009) raised spectres of sovereign power which still haunt our concept of society. Measure for Measure looks into the “very nerves of state” where the economies of desire and law interlock. This Measure for Measure is set in a society very much like ours – where pornography has become mainstream, where sex tapes of celebrities are public fodder, where politicians speak in the name of God, where all private lives are under constant surveillance, where everything is numbered and consumable- a control society.

In order to gain sense of himself and his city, Vincentio, Duke of Vienna hands over his authority and disappears. He takes a holiday from reality. Disguised, he is voyeur to his society’s hidden life. He becomes an author / director surrogate- lurking beside the stage of his fantasy, peering in, pulling strings. The people in his city become players in an elaborate and perverse fiction. Like someone trying to see themselves between two mirrors, the play is drawn into a mise en abyme. Shakespeare sets up a vertiginous play of substitutions and exchanges, disguises and alibis, hungers and transgressions. In doing so, he creates a play that defies easy categorisation.

Measure for Measure is Shakeapeare’s last and strangest comedy. The concluding marriages provoke more questions than answers, and the purportedly redemptive repair of society leaves a bitter taste. The play is to the conventions of Shakespearean comedy what David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is to film-noir. It blisters and fractures the genre, turns it inside out, makes a prism of the form. Discussing the fifth act’s wild scherzo, Harold Bloom writes, “Shakespeare piles outrage upon outrage, leaves us morally breathless and imaginatively bewildered, rather as if he would end comedy itself, thrusting it beyond all possible limits, past farce, long past satire, almost past irony at its most savage.”

In the theatre, the actors stand in for us, and as our substitutes, show us how we are, how we have been, how we might be. When the Duke appoints Angelo to “supply his absence”, he sets in motion a chain of substitutions, doublings, swappings, and exchanges. They spiral ad absurdum: Claudio’s head for Julietta’s maidenhead; Isabella’s maidenhead to save Claudio’s head; Mariana posing as be Isabella in Angelo’s bed; the death-head of Barnadine or Ragiozone disguised as Claudio’s etc. The transmutability of people and things is giddy and feverous.

Discussing substitution as a common foundation of both theatre and state, Marjorie Garber asks, “Who represents God? Who represents the king, or the Duke? How does an actor represent a character or a set of ideas on the stage? Since a ‘person’, from the Latin persona, an actors mask, is one who impersonates, who represents, then an actor is a person, and a person is an actor. Both ‘counterfeit’, both represent.”Measure for Measure details authority as a machine of stand-ins. It’s theatre unpeels the theatricalization of everyday life, and lays bare the network of roles, masks, and representations that fabricate society. In doing so, the very standards of equivalence and measure that are demanded by jurisprudence, finance, and governance are made suspect. Briefly, in the counterfeited reality of the theatre, (to borrow a phrase from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben) perhaps “the perverse and tenacious machines that govern our political imaginary suddenly lose their power.”

Measure for Measure is a glinting jewell, a strange brooch to our endlessly alien natures. I love it for all the problems it poses – formally, theatrically, especially morally. It’s a scathing and relentless inquiry into questions of law and transgression, of authority and desire, of death and justice. I consider it as a psycho-sexual-political- thriller for our times.

Benedict Andrews, May 2010