A Young Critics view of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Provincial in Cardiff Bay by Sherman Cymru.
Black, White and those murky shades of grey
“Like for like, Measure for Measure”
Shakespeare’s measure for measure can be seen as a social commentary of 1604 dealing with issues within humanity. Yet for that, the very essence of play still resonates in modern society, and the focus in this production is the dealings with personal and public morality and sexuality to the politics of power: how little the Duke does to stay in power and then when Angelo has power his changes create his downfall. The original play deals with those topics but as mercy, justice, truth and the bond each has with pride and humility: asking where along the path do you fall and if any stance that you take is right. The difference is simply that today the shades of grey take precedence instead of a 16th century clear cut black and white. Looking at the history and the evidence Measure for Measure provides, social and religious unrest exists now as it did then, just on a far larger scale, as does political scheming. It all prompts the question: how much could we learn if we looked at the lessons history gives us?
Luxury and Opulance, all in red.
Walking into the theatre space you are greeted by opulence and luxury: everything in red from velvet drapes to satin seat cushions and red carpet. The ‘haze’ used during the production added to the overall atmosphere, particularly as ‘opium haze’ and such things were common place in the whore house and ‘parlours’ of the Medieval world. As much as it created an extra element of authenticity I wasn’t keen on the haze: it came in waves, often overpowering: I felt that a lesser dose would have been better but at least they warned us before we went into the production. Ascending the stair’s the room opens out before you, white marble column’s rising to the roof, displaying the age and grandeur of the building – the Provincial being a bank in earlier times. The audience is seated in tiers around the central stage looking down on the performers. The production is full of sensuality and grace, the costume’s are revealing, the casts movements and poses are sexually inviting, there is dancing at certain points as the Saxophone player fills the room with this bluesy, sensual music.
With this version of the play the number of cast does not measure up to the number of characters taking part. Of the eight performers, five have two parts to play and to differentiate between each one subtle costume changes and clear accent differences occur: Lord Angelo becomes Mistress Overdone by draping sparkly material over the arms - much like a lady holds out the ends of her skirt – and the crisp upper class accent melts in to the lilting musical welsh accent. All the actors use the variation between the crisp upper class and the Welsh accent to differentiate their characters; of course some have stronger Welsh accents than others. In the limited space that the Provincial provides there was little if no space to change costumes behind the scenes, so a character’s representation had to be far more subtle, this is where accents play a great part and also to give actors character’s with opposing gender’s and personalities: Eiry Tomas playing the gentle Julietta and the bawdy Lucio. Productions that employ this technique can become difficult to follow but with the techniques used, my advice is to bear with it and the further you are drawn into the play the quicker it snaps into place.
As one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, unlike the populist Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth it is a play of multiple faces with brilliant comedy and heart wrenching tragedy, it is as if the play has never made up its mind whether to side with the bawdy sexual humour or to dive into the tragedy. Yet in doing that it enthrals you even more: endearing the sinful characters and the audience dislikes the ‘pure’ character – introducing shades of grey into Angelo’s white and the Duke’s black portrait.
Is the path to hell paved with good intentions?
Leaving his city in the hands of piously minded powerful Angelo, the Duke goes into hiding as a Friar (there are two in the original play, one a proper friar, the other the Duke), and he observes Angelo bringing back the old laws: banning sex and brothels. As part of his intentions to clean up the city Angelo condemns a man to death (Claudio) as Claudio has made Julietta, his lover, pregnant.
Yet Angelo’s purity is questioned when Isabella appears, she is the innocent novice begging for her brother’s life, Angelo is tempted by Isabella – her purity and innocence, and he suggests that Claudio’s life could be saved if she will sleep with him. Also when the wrongs he has done Mariana are revealed by the Duke as Friar. When the Duke is finally discovered as the Friar he has final judgement, forcing Angelo to marry Marianna as he should have many years ago and giving Isabella the right to demand Angelo’s life for Claudio’s life:
“...but as he adjudged your brother,--
Being criminal, in double violation
Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach
Thereon dependent, for your brother's life,--
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASURE still FOR MEASURE...”
Claudio has not died – a likeness of him has gone in his place, but only the Duke knows this, even so Isabella does not bow to pressure to have Angelo’s life forfeit and is rewarded by the appearance of her brother. What is truly a piece of political scheming is the Duke’s request to marry Isabella at the end, his scheming and plotting as the Friar and his political clout as the Duke has cleared the path for him to do this.
The production stays true to Shakespeare’ s language – I am encouraged when I find they have kept the language as true as possible, translating it into the truly modern English takes away from what Shakespeare is meant to be, the history and the gift it is to the literary cannon. I accept that there will always be interpretations, they are a good way of exploring old themes in new ways and are often good productions – maybe I’m just a sucker for tradition, even if I still haven’t made my way through all of Shakespeare’s plays quite yet. I’ll get there one day.
I bumped into an old lecturer at the play; he is the dramaturge for the production (DJ Britton) which was an excellent surprise: it is nice to see people I know at productions, I feel like I am doing the right thing and getting on with it.
This production has been a fantastic version of Measure for Measure; everything has been done well and even with the revamps to fit an eight member cast and the focus on the modernity of the issues. The production is on until 5th December at the Provincial by Sherman Cymru.
My blog: http://aravensquill.blogspot.com/
Photo's by Toby Farrow on Sherman Cymru Gallery
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