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Thursday, 30 May 2013

Performances Redeem Shakespeare's Oddest Play: Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry; designed by John Pennoyer
Stephen Russell as Provost, Geraint
Wyn Davies as the Duke,
and Christopher Prentice as Claudio.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
The Story: Duke Vincentio leaves Angelo in charge of cleaning up Vienna by applying the laws he has neglected for years. Angelo starts by ordering the execution of Claudio, who impregnated Julietta before their wedding, until a visit from Claudio's sister, Isabella - a novice nun - awakens lust within him. He makes her a very indecent proposal, little aware that the Duke has remained in Vienna in disguise as a monk, and knows all.

Measure for Measure is listed as a comedy, and many scholars argue that it indeed bears many of the hallmarks of Shakespeare's more well-known romps - there are multiple marriages in the end, an intelligent leading lady, a witty interloper... yet Measure for Measure remains, particularly for modern audiences, an  odd play, and for modern directors, a challenge to produce.

Such is the case with Martha Henry's production. Set in 1949 Vienna is a smart enough choice; Shakespeare's Vienna of corruption and chaos is suited to a bombed-out city where citizens are cobbling out lives after surviving World War II. However many staging choices were distinctly not of that era, pulling the audience momentarily out of the production, and that is never a good thing.

For instance, much is made in the production notes of a 'film noir' influence, and Patricia Collins as Mistress Overdone certainly looks the part in a Veronica Lake peek-a-boo bob, but why choose a cockney accent when Marlene Dietrich's sultry tones would sound more authentically Viennese? The discordant sounds of the tympanic "Gordaneer" machine is distinctly not of the late 40's, yet it suits the play to such a degree that throwing in a few lines of a standard 1940's ballad is more jarring than funny. The first appearance of Pompey and Froth has too strong a resemblance to two of the Three Stooges to be accidental. And why would the Duke stop, mid-soliloquy, to deliver part of it in a rap, a mode of expression that came decades later than 1949?


Geraint Wyn Davies as the Duke. Photo by Michael Cooper.
The strangeness of the play and some of the staging is redeemed by some superb acting. Geraint Wyn Davies takes an insecure, equivocating sort of Duke and imbues him with such charm, warmth and likeability that in a "what happens next" scenario, one could, for once, see Isabella accepting his abrupt marriage proposal. As the part is written the Duke is an arrogant puppeteer, and while Mr. Wyn Davies portrayal (and some judicious tinkering with the text) does not entirely remove the morally outrageous ambiguity of the Duke's actions, he certainly makes it easier to live with them.

Carmen Grant as Isabella and Tom Rooney as Angelo.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
As the beleaguered Isabella, Carmen Grant provides a brilliantly clear picture of an unassuming, intelligent woman conflicted by the determination  to call her life her own, and the wish to save her beloved brother. It is an unforgiving role, but Ms. Grant moved some in the opening night audience to tears,  and proves both herself and her Isabella  more than a match for Tom Rooney's Angelo, whose performance may be a tad too understated for audiences to see how (and when) such a cold fish could so rapidly fall for a devoted novitiate. 

The witty interloper role of Lucio is filled by Stephen Ouimette, who could probably deliver his lines in Swahili and still communicate every nuance with crystal clarity. Taxed with providing most of the laughs of the play (along with Randy Hughson as Pompey), Mr. Ouimette's Lucio is the requisite smarmy yet surprisingly warm in his support of Claudio and Isabella - this warmth turns Lucio into more than a comic caricature and into a fully-rounded and appealing human being.

Stephen Ouimette as Lucio.
Photo by Michael Cooper.
Other impressive performances to note include StephenRussell as the Provost, Christopher Prentice as Claudio and Peter Hutt as Escalus. Known for his stoic, dry delivery, it is nice to see Mr. Russell soften, just a bit, when pleading for Claudio, unobtrusively tying the shoes of the pregnant Julietta, and describing with anxious awe the fearsome murderer, Barnadine. Christopher Prentice expresses Claudio's fear and resignation with haunting perfection, and Peter Hutt gives Escalus, the voice of reason in the play, a nice temper-tantrum near play's end like a man whose patience has finally run out.

The hypocrisy of each character, the philosophical debates that are never sorted out, the unbelievable coincidences that appear to solve the characters' dilemmas... quite simply, Measure for Measure is a bizarre play that stretches one's suspension of disbelief to the tipping point. But thanks to Msrs. Wyn Davies, Ouimette, Prentice and Ms. Grant, Stratford has a more straightforward  telling of this tale than one is likely to get anywhere, and that is no small feat.

Measure for Measure continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 21.


  1. Link from Measure to Beacon Herald produces the Fiddler review....


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