Shakespeare was a brilliant thinker, but he might not have had the foresight to imagine a production of Measure for Measure quite like this. Director Helena Baker has allowed the play to retain its serious contemplation on virtue and justice while exploring its comedy in a modern setting. Expect Hawaiian shirts, mobile phones and jazzy nightclub music as Castle Theatre Company bring Measure for Measure to the Assembly Rooms and our era with commendable results.
The premise of Measure for Measure is a teasing one: a strict judge, Angelo, is left to govern an immoral Vienna with full freedom. Unsurprisingly, Angelo gets over-excited at having the power to enforce all his favourite laws and unearths a dormant one to decree the execution of Claudio for partaking in pre-marital sex. What ensues are the questions of how far Isabella, a nun and Claudio’s sister, is willing to stretch moral code to save her brother, and what on earth will happen to Angelo when the more lenient Duke Vincentio- who has been observing in secret all along- returns to resume control.
The modern setting is refreshing and allows the play to assume full pertinence. Throughout, the flashing cameras, frequent texting and BBC news-style voiceovers allude to the increasing havoc of social media and the intrusive nature of the public eye on high-profile individuals. Yet, despite being hounded by reporters, the figure of Angelo rises in a wave of calm. Etienne Currah is effortless in how he captures his composed demeanour, his posture straight and lines delivered with measure. Praise must also be given for Currah’s portrayal of Angelo’s infection with lust- in a scene where he covets Isabella, his eyes slither up and down her, as he encroaches on her with groping hands. In these moments the vile nature of harassment rears its ugly head the most, directly addressing the backdrop of the #MeToo movement. His explosion in desire and temper is played forcefully, though perhaps more development of his inner tensions could be offered in the previous scenes, as it comes across as slightly sudden.
Charley Culley’s facial expressions and body language are a litmus test for Isabella’s emotional state. She trembles and tenses when threatened, and captures bewilderment in her eyes during her most intimate scene with the audience; after realising that nobody will believe her complaints about Angelo, the room is tasered into stillness when she utters the play’s most harrowing line: “To whom should I complain?”. Isabella could potentially be framed as more independently defiant- in a play that focuses heavily on her grapple with her values, it takes too much frustrated encouragement from Lucio to make her stand up for herself strongly. It would be more satisfying if she had more independence in activating her resilience.
One area where this production succeeds greatly is in its comedy and irony. The opening scene is set in a nightclub, with exaggerated motions emphasising the follies and foibles of the characters. Tom Pyle portrays this fool excellently, exuberant with his lewd humour and unashamed in his compulsive lying. Throughout the play, he becomes increasingly undermined by the web of fabrications he weaves, but remains for the audience popular figure- when Pyle stepped on stage, an audible chuckle would sometimes arise from the audience, as if to welcome the return of a favourite pantomime nuisance. The prisoner Barnardine is also given a distinctive edge by Matt Styles, and attracts laughs with his gruff, dim-witted personality and obsession with munching on an onion, of all things.
Costumes are used effectively in the play. When Duke Vincentio, the wisest and calmest character on stage, is disguised as a friar, his brown cloak is amusingly reminiscent of that of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Jack de Deney lives up to the costume, coming across as beyond his years in composure and sophistication. Additionally, from the opening scene, it is clear which characters are of a higher status due to their suits, and Isabella’s intrusion in the nightclub dressed as a nun- an incongruity which prompts a freezeframe with everybody staring at her- emphasises the distinction between the moral compasses of the characters very well. To push this further, the set could be varied to distinguish, for example, between a prison and a nunnery, and some make-up might be useful in adding an additional expression of mood to certain characters, but these are trifling points.
On the whole, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking adaptation of a timeless classic. Though minor improvements would not go amiss, each member of the team has clearly invested a lot of effort into this show, and it shows in the final product. What’s more, they sell Ben and Jerry’s during the interval. Shakespeare and ice cream. Are you going to say no to that?
Measure for Measure is on again at the Assembly Rooms Theatre, on the 14th and 15th of February at 7:30pm.
By Luke Power