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September 21, 2006

Peter Hall's production of Measure for Measure is the most complete and moving rendition of this difficult but wonderful work which I have ever seen, says David Womersley: Measure for Measure at Stratford

Posted by David Womersley

William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure
directed by Peter Hall
Theatre Royal Bath/The Peter Hall Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
13th - 16th September 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - explains why Peter Hall's production of Measure for Measure is the most complete and moving rendition of the play which he has ever seen.

Any director of Measure for Measure has to make a series of tricky decisions which are full of implication for how the play will be rendered in performance. How is the dichotomous nature of the play, with its tragically-coloured, predominantly blank verse first half and its generically comic, predominantly prose second half, to be handled? If the division is pointed up and made very evident, this can have the effect of undermining the audience's confidence in the effectiveness of the play's final scene as a resolution of the forces and issues which have been set in motion in the first three acts. If, however, the fracture in the play (normally located half-way through Act III, Scene i) is camouflaged, then there is a danger that the real moral ambiguities in the solution the Duke engineers for the play's seemingly intractable problems may appear to be too natural, too little the result of effortful ingenuity (and the occasional stroke of luck) on his part.

The character of the Duke himself is a second crux for the play's director. Is he to be portrayed sympathetically, as a man burdened with office who is doing his best by his own lights to introduce a regime of wholesome regulation into diseased, pox-ridden Vienna? Or should he be more like Lucio's "old fantastical duke of dark corners", a man surreptitiously given to the very vices he publicly chastises, and whose authority is a matter of indirect meddling - a view for which the play holds out a substantial warrant.

Is Isabella a frigid prig, who refuses to sacrifice her virginity to save her brother Claudio's life, and thus reveals a disordered sense of moral equivalence (this play, more than any other's of Shakespeare, is preoccupied with substitutions and implied equivalences of things that we normally regard as incommensurable)? Or is she a lonely voice of moral rectitude in a city so literally and metaphorically poxed that for most of its inhabitants questions of morals have been collapsed into just another aspect of trade, barter and commodification? Is Angelo, the man who takes the place of the Duke during his temporary abdication from the government of Vienna, and who promises - falsely, as it turns out - to save Claudio's life if Isabella agrees to sleep with him, an outrageous hypocrite from whom an audience should withdraw all sympathy? Or is he rather a man who has to undergo the catastrophic realisation that he is, notwithstanding the strictness of his life thus far, made of flesh and blood, and whose lines -

The state whereon I studied
Is like a good thing, being often read,
Grown seared and tedious. Yea, my gravity,
Wherein - let no man hear me - I take pride,
Could I with boot change for an idle plume
Which the air beats in vain. O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood.
- possess a genuinely tragic intensity?

Peter Hall's restrained, careful, yet quite brilliant production of this problematic play, which so invites from a director a reductive simplification which would spell death to its dramatic energy, navigates Measure for Measure's dilemmas with security and astuteness. Never meretricious or flashy, always thoughtful and intelligent, it is beyond question the most complete and moving rendition of this difficult but wonderful work which I have ever seen.

The set is very bare; for most scenes, just an imposing (but isolated) chair of state; during the prison scenes, bars descend. The costumes of the noble characters are sober seventeenth-century clothes, reminiscent of those one sees in pictures by Rembrandt; those of the lower orders are rags. The costumes don't draw attention to themselves, but they have a subtle power in suggesting a society dangerously divided, opulent in its higher reaches but also quietly anxious and reliant on dubious foundations.

The dominant themes of the play - sex, justice and the relation between the two - are of course perennial, and so present a terrible temptation to a director: they seem to be a standing invitation to uproot the play from its seventeenth-century context and re-situate in, say, the Ruhr during the 1930s or Argentina in the 1950s. All these distracting possibilities Peter Hall has wisely resisted. The result is that, freed from any tendentious, distracting "interpretation" which would inevitably act as a filter to distort and reduce the play, the ethical urgency which Shakespeare seems to have designed into both individual scenes and the overall shape of the play emerges with great power. Measure for Measure is, in part, a play of ideas, and I cannot recall an evening in the theatre when I have been so intensely and continuously absorbed.

This is a superb company performance, without any weak parts. Escalus (Barry Stanton) and the Provost (Paul Bentall), amongst the second rank of characters, both give fine performances (the latter's amounting almost to a revelation), while the comic characters (Pompey, Froth, and Elbow) are exuberant and show great comic timing.

The play's three main characters - the Duke, Isabella and Angelo, played by respectively James Laurenson, Andrea Riseborough, and Richard Dormer - are all excellent. Laurenson gives a moving performance as the Duke, in which the moral complexity of his actions is not concealed, but in which the pathos of authority is powerfully expressed. This is above all true in the controversial development at the end of the play, when he proposes marriage to Isabella, having just produced Claudio unharmed. This looks uncomfortably like the equation which Angelo had, earlier in the play, put to Isabella: your brother for your virginity. It therefore has the power to suggest that there is little to choose between the Duke and Angelo, in that both men are willing to trade justice for love: a suggestion which is cemented in place whether Isabella conforms to the exigencies of the comic ending and complacently accepts the Duke, or whether she runs off stage, appalled at the prospect. The fact that Shakespeare gives Isabella no lines at this point in the play gives the director a very free hand.

Hall astutely avoids those harsh alternatives. His Isabella does not respond to the Duke's overture in any way, and the result is a melancholy ending in which, although the irrepressible Lucio (a bravura performance from Michael Mears) believes that he has been most harshly dealt with, for the audience it is the Duke who has suffered most acutely.

This, then, is a production of Measure for Measure which is deeply, but intelligently, sympathetic to the trials of authority. Other, more irreverent, Measures are possible, in which Lucio might emerge as a more substantial character who has a solution to the problems of Vienna more humane than that put into practice by the Duke. But it is difficult to see how the line which Peter Hall has taken in this production could be realised more fully or more sensitively.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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