Before going in to the ins and outs of this Measure, one needs to mention the context where it is being played. The Rose Theatre was the first Elizabethan theatre built on London’s South Bank in what was then a decadent part of the city. It is perhaps the oldest theatre in London and was where Shakespeare first put on many of his plays. It was used widely until it was pulled down in 1606, and came back to prominence when the foundations were excavated in 1989.
Now it sits underneath a new development and the outlines of the foundations and their artefacts can be seen when the site is opened up to the public on weekends. Going forward, the theatre has ambitious (but do-able) plans to raise £4.6 million to fully excavate the site, and cover it with glass to make a fantastic performance space and educational centre. It was for this purpose they put on a performance of Measure for Measure from The Owle Schreame Theatre Company.
Measure for Measure is an interesting one. It has some (in my opinion) very underrated comic characters and funny moments, and this production certainly lives up to this element of the play, but I’ve always felt the subject matter and mood a bit too dark for it to be labelled as a comedy (as the First Folio does).
Director Brice Stratford puts on a shortened (the entire play lasted one hour and forty minutes) and stripped down version, and it works superbly. With possibly the barest performance of this play ever, Stratford strips away many of the peripheral characters and scenes, getting straight in to the action with Claudio off to jail at the very start (Juliet doesn’t even get a look in). Out goes the long points on the corruption of power, or religious obedience, in go the laughs and a lot of energy from the performers.
Throughout the play, the characters are on top form, with Lucio (Thomas Vilorio) and Mistress Overdone (Elizabeth Bloom) standing out. Their snide comments and random commentary in some very non-Shakespeare language add to the comedy, interaction and fun, and indeed these are the standout memories I will take away from this production. In his deliberations, Vincentio (Brice Stratford) sits amongst the crowd, and more than once certain audience members are directly appealed to or asked to hold cloaks or canes.
Claudio is convincing, but he is downgraded to a plot point and has very little stage time compared to other performances, as does Mariana, who is played delicately and with some lovely naivety by Fiona Nivalis. What of Angelo? Angelo can be played as an overly pious stickler for the rules (see any American cop film with a disgruntled Captain) or evil despot, but Dan Van Garrett never really nails it, going for the ‘busy administrator’ option of someone who just had to get on with things. There are some brilliant flashes, such as his self-disgust when he attacks the rather screechy and moody Isabella (Suzanne Marie), but overall it seems like he doesn’t have a distinct mode for Angelo. Van Garrett is comedic, and this Angelo is played much lighter than in other productions. Indeed, the prison seems more like a mad-house with prisoners able to move about at will.
The costumes are convincing and subtle, opting for a nineteenth century look rather than a modern or classical interpretation. The stage had literally zero props, but this does not matter. The way the actors interact with the crowd make up for this, so true kudos go out to Kate Hall, the Stage Manager for being able to keep everyone in check. There is no music, except in the end at the dance/curtain call, (wonderfully choreographed by Shirley Newton) but like the scenery, and basic lighting, it is not necessary for such an intimate and interactive performance.
This is Measure for Measure played without a (serious) purpose. Other reviews of this play on PlayShakespeare.com pick up on directors trying to draw parallels with modern life and pushing the audience to think about massive concepts like the place of religion, justice and the concept of mercy. This one doesn't, but instead strips the play down and has fun, maybe as Shakespeare wanted it. Given the production’s location in the historic Rose Theatre, this could be deliberate.