Keith Gallasch on “Measure for Measure”

SHAKESPEARE’S MEASURE FOR MEASURE HAS LONG BEEN REGARDED AS A ‘PROBLEM PLAY.’ IT’S A CLASSICAL COMEDY IN MANY RESPECTS, FOCUSED ON LOVE AND EVERYDAY SEXUAL MORES, LOADED WITH HIDDEN IDENTITIES, SUBSTITUTIONS AND COMICAL MISCALCULATIONS AND IS RESOLVED WITH A WELTER OF MARRIAGES INDICATIVE OF SOCIAL RENEWAL. HOWEVER, THE PLAY’S TONE IS SURPRISINGLY DARK FOR A COMEDY, IF NOT BLACK, ALTHOUGH BENEDICT ANDREWS’ PRODUCTION FOR COMPANY B SOMETIMES APTLY PAINTS IT SO. WHILE THE THREAT OF DEATH IS NOT UNCOMMON IN COMEDY, IT’S USUALLY TREATED LIGHTLY, BUT HERE SHAKESPEARE MAKES ITS LIKELIHOOD PALPABLE. THE SUFFERING OF THE PRINCIPAL CHARACTERS IS PAINFULLY ACUTE AS THE LAW TURNS UNJUST AND A CRUEL INEVITABILITY TAKES OVER—TRAGEDY IS IMMINENT.

Measure for Measure (1604) is snared by the dark side of politics. That’s not unusual for a comedy of the first decade of 17th century London, but here state power is enacted with such severity and in such an un-comedic vein that the play teeters uncomfortably between genres. This is especially so at the end when Shakespeare attempts to balance the return of justice with the demands of comic resolution. This complication is amplified in the final act by a deus ex machina who is the principal cause of the near tragedy. Consequently, while it makes fine fodder for literary debate, Measure for Measure is not frequently produced and the directorial challenge to achieve a unity of vision is formidable.

However, while the ending of the play remains forever problematic, the relationship between serious drama and comedy is, for the most part, dynamic. Disturbed by a rise in sexual licentiousness among his citizens, the Duke of Vienna (Robert Menzies) absents himself, leaving the city in the hands of a trusted deputy, the morally respectable Angelo (Damon Gameau) who immediately commences a series of brutal prosecutions at all levels of society. Prostitutes, bawds, officers of the law, citizens and politicians are suddenly thrust together. Measure for Measure is kin to the satirical Jacobean city comedies of the 1600s—urban, licentious and laced with droll seriousness, as when the bawd Pompey (Arky Michael), forced to become an executioner’s assistant, decries the ‘mystique’ of haughty executioners. The Provost (Steve Rodgers) concurs in a retort to the offended executioner, “Go to, sir, you weigh equally [with bawds]: a feather will turn the scale.”

Comedy and drama are at one in the play’s struggle to balance personal freedom and the demands of law, not least when power is being abused. Angelo decides to execute Claudio (Chris Ryan) who has impregnated his fiancée, Julietta (Maeve Dermody). Angelo then demands the sexual favours of Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Robin McLeavy), a novice nun, in return for her brother’s life, a bargain he has no intention of honouring. Benedict Andrews keeps the comedy rude and raw, even grossing it up with an early group sex and pillow fight scene (the world awash with feathers for the remainder of the first half of the play) and later with Lucio (Toby Schmitz) engaging furiously in frottage and penetration with a tiger lily. It’s as if to say, yes, the city is depraved, but which is the greater evil—general licentiousness or the abuse of power?

The sense of a coherent world is made more concrete by having all of the action occur within one intensively surveilled room. As it revolves it becomes other spaces (nunnery, cell, office) but its commonality is produced by the space reducing cameras hand-wielded or secreted in ceilings by the mass media or the state and the Duke’s personal surveillance in his guise as a man of the church manipulating the action. The result is a closed, dangerous world where everything is bared and controllable.

The revolving room is framed either side by large screens which provide close-ups of the characters and medium shots of character groupings, offering alternative layers of comment and emotional intensity. The sense of portraiture is particularly strong (the printed program reproduces Giorgio Agamben’s essay “The Face”). Flickering into focus, still, listening faces appear like paintings—Isabella as if rendered by Vermeer. At other times the images are hard—the over-lit pornography of interrogation and intrusion. Actors take turns at operating cameras, standing mid-action, ignored by the characters they’re filming and eventually by the audience, so familiar is the idiom, its power neglected at our peril. We peer at faces, looking as we do in portraiture for some kind of truth or essence and with increasing uncertainty.

The interplay of live action and its immediate screening is engrossing, even in a small theatre where you often have to choose where to direct your attention (especially if you’re sitting close to the stage—not an ideal position). Some moments become almost entirely cinematic, one of the most affecting being when Isabella tells her doomed brother that she cannot rescue him from death. In low blue light the stage is almost dark, brother and sister initially either side of a glass wall, her face reflected over his, amplifying the sense of kinship at the same time as a terrible moral divide. Ryan and McLeavy, advantaged as well by head microphones, play the scene with a low key, nuanced intensity. Sean Bacon dexterously live edits the camerawork with an air of improvisation while simultaneously, assured artistry is evident in every carefully framed image right down to the panning shots across fallen feathers as scenes are bridged.

As usual with Benedict Andrews there’s a bracing thoroughness in the way he takes a conceit, gives it body and weaves it through his productions, just as Shakespeare does with metaphor and its embodiment. The video shooting is seamlessly integrated into the action—Isabella huddles in a cupboard, aiming a camera at herself; the arrested Claudio spits into the lens; the death row prisoner, Barnadine (Colin Moody), face-painted with blood and faeces after trashing the hotel holding room he’s been locked in, leers into the surveillance camera—he knows he has an audience. We watch characters going to the toilet, being subjected to urine tests and genetic swabbing as a matter of course. When the Duke steps out of the surveillance frame it’s a shock—he needs greater distance from his world than a disguise can allow. It’s also preparation for the very final moment of the production: it had the audience cheering and, in a way, answered at least one ‘problem’ inherent in the play—but you need to see that for yourself.

McLeavy is excellent as Isabella, making the most of the young woman’s alternations between hesitation and determination, above all marking her surprise, right to the end, at the world in which she has found herself. Her sudden, angry insight into the wrong done Claudio by Angelo is powered by logic—no wonder he is taken by her. Yet, she cannot fully understand her brother’s anguish at her refusal to surrender to Angelo. (Another of the play’s ‘problems’ is that although she aids the outing of her nemesis, it is eagerly at the ‘expense’ of another woman going to Angelo’s bed in her stead.) Frank Whitten makes a fine Escalus, an older statesman trapped between Angelo’s dictatorial actions and his own sense of fair play. Arky Michael is a sympathetic, funny Pompey and the sense of desperation and panic among the bawds is convincing as the law is forcefully enacted.

I was less certain about Damon Gameau as Angelo. Except for the moment Angelo speaks with sheer surprise at his attraction to Isabella (running a hand over an erection), the portrayal seemed oddly neutral—as if Angelo is all enigma, a man not to be gauged except by reputation. Where was the personality, evidence of the will that could frighten the populace and compromise fair men like Escalus? Robert Menzies as the Duke was at his best in the long final scene, fiery, fast, in control, cruelly if logically playing out a game to trap Angelo. His anxious, machinating and sometimes shocked friar was less convincing—could there have been more to the Duke and his friar self than the stolid interiority that emerges from time to time in Menzies’ performances, as in his Brutus for Andrews’ Julius Caesar for the Sydney Theatre Company.

Toby Schmitz’s Lucio is a highlight—all at once an exemplar of the city’s debauchery, a loyal friend to Claudio (it’s Lucio who persuades Isabella to act) and an otherwise obtuse judge of personalities and situations. Schmitz creates a tunnel vision personality, cocky, rude and stylishly contemporary, while making remarkably easy sense of Shakespeare’s language.

Although not entirely convinced by the accounts of the Duke and Angelo, I nonetheless found Andrews’ production to have a marvellous cogency in its sense of a self-contained world, amoral but soon painfully intent on achieving a balance between law and justice. The Duke’s city has real problems which are presented with apt rawness, visually and loudly. At other moments, Measure for Measure is played and intimately projected with the requisite delicacy, if always underpinned with urgency. Andrews and his collaborators make Measure for Measure a play for our times, bringing to the stage the invasive cameras of news media and surveillance as the latest tools of power, cruelly distorting prisms that nonetheless, and quite ironically, allow us here to see further than we usually might.

Keith Gallasch, 2010

This article originally appeared in RealTime 98 and is reproduced with the permission of the writer and the publisher, Open City; www.realtimearts.net