14 Jul Measure For Measure
Directed by Andrew Hilton
07 February – 17 March 2001
Production Photos © Alan Moore 2001
We prepared a version of Measure for Measure to open our second season, which included a wholly new scene of 50 lines (a first-half introduction for Mariana and her back-story with Angelo) written by the playwright, Dominic Power. That this went completely unremarked by any of the critics we reckoned the highest compliment to Dominic’s ability to weave new material seamlessly into a classic text.
Peter Clifford Duke
Robert Pheby Escalus
John Mackay Angelo
Gyuri Sarossy Friar Peter
Cameron Fitch Lucio
David Collins Froth & Barnadine
Carol Brannan Mistress Overdone
Chris Donnelly Pompey
Stuart Crossman Claudio
Jonathan Nibbs Provost
Nick Wilkes Officer
Lucy Black Isabella
Rebecca Smart Nun & Juliet
Paul Nicholson Elbow & Abhorson
Saskia Portway Mariana
Tom Rogers Servant
Director Andrew Hilton
Designer Andrea Montag
Lighting Designer Paul Towson
Edition Dominic Power
Music John Telfer
Production Manager Dan Danson
Stage Managers Samtha Portlock & Esther Last
Technical Stage Manager Mim Spencer
Costume Laundry Kim Winter
★★★★ The Guardian ’Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall,” professes Angelo, the newly appointed regent of the Duke. Shakespeare certainly knew how to pile on the irony, and 400 years on this notoriously difficult and morally tricky play still has the power to send you out of the theatre arguing for and against the characters and their actions.
Lucy Black as Isabella Featured photo (above): John Mackay as Angelo
For a modern audience, Isabella’s determination to save her virginity over the life of her brother can make her seem priggish, but even if you take that view the drama is sufficiently slippery to throw up plenty of other moral propositions. Do two wrongs make a right? And what about the behaviour of the Duke? These questions become urgent, necessary and utterly contemporary in good productions of this play, and this is a very fine rendition indeed.
Director Andrew Hilton is a bit of a puritan about Shakespeare. He stages it in period costume and without embellishment. There are no tricks, just clear storytelling, excellent verse speaking and intricate, wonderfully detailed performances. The acting of every single player here, right down to the smallest role, is crystal. Even the tiny part of the Nun is beautifully done.
In such a good cast, it is almost a shame to pick people out, but John Mackay’s Angelo is wonderfully complex and right from the beginning conveys his fallibility. His reluctance to take the Duke’s chair suggests that he has enough self-knowledge to be aware of his own weaknesses. That he knows that he will fall.
As Isabella, Lucy Black suggests not a saint, but a quiet woman with a steely resolve who can get quite snappy when stressed. The ending is just wonderful; with her brother unexpectedly restored to her and the Duke rushing her into marriage, Isabella doesn’t look suffused with joy but has the glazed, horrified look of a woman who has just realized that a juggernaut is bearing down on her at 100 miles an hour.
The Observer MORE AND MORE it seems the best theatre is happening outside theatre buildings. Take the company called Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. Just over a year ago its artistic director Andrew Hilton commandeered an industrial building once central to Bristol’s financial prosperity. He has drawn on another rich resource of the city: young actors fresh from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre school. He is eliciting luminous performances, producing forceful, distinctly articulated Shakespeare.
A big cast in a small bare space: there’s intensity but also expansiveness in Hilton’s direction of Measure for Measure, played in Elizabethan costume with scant props and scene changes signaled by a dipping of lights and a few trumpet trills. The production, set in the round in a low-ceilinged, iron-pillared room, is near enough to be watched by the audience as a series of close-ups.
Many of these have to do with women’s faces. In the opening moments, a nun, reluctantly admitting a visitor to her convent, twists and turns away from him as he tries to see her features – like a butterfly flitting from a collector’s net. In the closing sequence, as Lucy Black’s taut, concentrated Isabella is claimed by the Duke in marriage as by right, she looks at him not with docile pleasure but bleakly, as if suddenly realizing she’s been betrayed; you can almost see the colour draining from her face.
It’s hard not to regard Isabella as a bit of a pill. It would be satisfying to see the scene when she refuses to accede to the seduction which might save her brother from death – ‘More than our brother is our chastity’ – played so that the audience are free to groan at her. Hilton doesn’t do this, but he does capture the pervasive iciness which steals through the play. John Mackay’s Angelo, with measured tread and swiveling eye, is so locked up in himself that he barely knows whether he’s being hypocritical or not: at his moment of greatest agitation he merely tightens the vicarish clasping of his hands. To strike a restaurantish note, my companion, who arrived full of grumbles at a play he considered preposterous, left in tears.
Measure for Measure met with a huge variety of response, unsurprisingly since it is undoubtedly a rather odd play. I remain convinced that Shakespeare was attempting something quite bold with the form of classical comedy, but even now I remain uncertain as to whether he really pulls it off. The Duke, as ever, is at the centre of this debate. He has often been read as a good and wise man – even as a portrait of Christ – whose only objective is to educate the zealous Angelo and Isabella about forgiveness and about their own, very human fallibility. He carries, therefore (according to this notion), elements of the deus ex machina, the play following a common pattern of comedy in which the protagonists, becoming dangerously at odds with themselves and with others, are rescued from their distress by the intervention of a wiser – and less embroiled – spirit. A happy resolution ensues, almost always marked by a marriage.
I cannot buy this theory of this play. It seems to me inescapable that Shakespeare is constantly undermining the Duke – questioning his motives, showing him to be self-regarding, callous and autocratic – and that the extraordinary developments of the plot in the second part – the matter of Barnadine’s execution, Ragozine’s severed head and the famous midnight tryst between Mariana and Angelo – are presented, not in some sort of fairy-tale manner, but with the feel and stench of the real. In which case the Duke’s machinations are not wise but selfish and immoral, and the resolution – which does of course include one actual marriage (enforced, between Angelo and Mariana) and the promise of another (between the Duke and Isabella) – his resolution only. He may feel his self-respect restored and he may well relish the prospect of bedding Isabella, but the sense of shared resolution is absent. Isabella is silent, as is Claudio. The prospects for Mariana and Angelo look bleak. This is not the ending of a Shakespearean comedy as we know them in Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night, let alone in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It. It seems more the appropriation of the happy ending by an unhappy and insecure man and a parody of the social and marital harmony that concludes the earlier, truly `festive’ comedies. The remaining question is whether Shakespeare actually set out to write such a difficult and innovative piece, or whether it developed and changed in the course of composition, resulting in a play that whilst it undoubtedly contains some of the greatest of all his writing seems ultimately uncertain in tone and intention.
I was not surprised to be taken to task for deciding to stage the midnight coupling of Angelo and Mariana, but I would do it again. Not to be salacious, but because the supposed idiocy of the idea that a man could have sex with one woman while believing her to be another has severely damaged Measure for Measure’s reputation. Even as we rehearsed it, I was interviewed by a journalist who collapsed into giggles at the first mention of the ‘bed trick’. How completely absurd – it couldn’t possibly happen. But in these particular, unhappy and constrained circumstances (on a moonless night) I believe it could, and by staging it I believe we proved the point. The Observer critic’s reference to “my companion, who arrived full of grumbles at a play he considered preposterous, left in tears” I choose to think bears testimony to this.
Nor was I surprised that no reference was made by reviewers to the entirely new scene – some 50 lines long – that Dominic Power added to the play, namely the first meeting between the Duke and Mariana that we placed about mid way in the first half. We thought it good dramaturgy to set up the Mariana story earlier, as well as to expand on the nature of her failed relationship with Angelo. That it went unremarked is the best compliment to the writer and the actors for weaving it so seamlessly into Shakespeare’s text.