What: Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK
Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company
When: July 2019
“The poetic atmosphere is one of religion and critical morality. The religious colouring is orthodox, as in Hamlet.”
“There have, however, been others, notably in the last century, such unlikely yoke-fellows as Gervinus in Germany and Walter Pater in England who have seen the play neither as expressive of cynicism and disgust nor as filled with the spirit of the Gospels and yet believe it to be no ‘meaningless’ entertainment but serious and coherent exploration of certain moral issues. It is in support of this view that the following pages are written”.
I have two touchstones, benchmarks if you will, when it comes to Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and the above quotations are examples of their understanding of the play and the differences between those understandings. Gregory Doran’s production of the play in Stratford-Upon-Avon may have become a third.
The play obviously features characters who are either struggling to understand how their religion is to be worked out or preferring not to work it out in the public arena. Isabella (a novice wishing to be a nun) has decided that her devotion to be God must lead her into a cloistered existence and a choice of celibacy. The Duke, Vincentio, thinks that his faith is a private matter and that he has failed to impose the values that it brings to him, on the city he must govern. That, in itself, could raise some interesting church and state questions. He, therefore, backs away and hands responsibility for “cleansing” the city on to his deputy. His deputy, Angelo, thinks that all these matters are simple and that each crime must be judged, heavy penalties handed out and the morality of the city will simply be lifted.
So here we definitely have a story that engages with religion and specifically Christian religion, but as it does, does it do so in order to discuss faith and the difference between that and mere religion or are those themes simply a device that help us to better understand morality.
Wilson Knight believes, and argues in his essay, that the play is some kind of exploration of the New Testament teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. Mr Schanzer would argue for the latter notion that it is a play about morality and flawed morality.
Mr Doran, who once said that he didn’t need the Bible because Shakespeare was his Bible (I paraphrase here) curiously comes much closer to Knight’s view and it is much to his credit that he does.
One thing that is interesting is that the degree to which all three think that this is about the difference between a judgemental religion and a faith which recognises one’s own flaws, each centre in on a different expression of the Christian faith.
Ernest Schanzer thinks that Shakespeare is attacking the morality and practises of the Puritans. G. Wilson Knight argues only that each of the major religious characters are good examples or bad examples of an orthodox Christian understanding (doctrinally rather than denominationally). The visual nature of Mr Doran’s presentation is entirely about Roman Catholicism (this in the era of the Reformation) and the asceticism of Angelo seems to set him in the ways of a modern group like Opus Dei or the ancient Flagellants. He is seen in one scene removing a personally applied torture device from his leg to reveal a bloody wound.
But this production certainly helps us explore the central themes of the play, whatever the finer detail, and does so with some excellent performances from the cast. Indeed, there is little here to find which is not positive and good.
If there is one thing that I would perhaps have looked again at, it is the way that all of the reprobates in this production are funny. Hardly something to grumble about but it does not help us to understand why Duke Vincentio and Angelo are concerned about the (literally) diseased under-belly of the city. Froth (Tom Dawze) is fine, David Ajao as Pompey is believable. Graeme Brookes as Mistress Overdone is just plain confusing and Melody Brown as Kate Keepdown couldn’t arise from the same streets as the rest of these characters inhabit. We step out of the real world and enter a 17th/19th century Carry On film which sits uneasily with everything else on the stage.
On to the almost limitless positives…
We have a wonderful but yet simple stage set by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Full of back projection, creating a mirroed effect.
As well as successfully jousting with the major plotlines and themes in this play, it must be remarked how well this production is cast.
The relatively minor character of Escalus who is normally described in the usual dramatis personae as “an Ancient Lord, joined with Angelo in the deputation” is here transformed into a councillor to give room for Claire Price to be cast in the role. Now gender changes in casting are hardly rare for the RSC these days but they have in the past produced mixed results. Here is one that really works. Ms Price is solid, stoic and concerned and emotional by turns. She does not have the biggest part in the play but you find yourself watching her characterisation and expression carefully, thoroughly impressed by the way she has thought out the role.
Then, we must say that all the major characters are played in exemplary fashion. Antony Byrne has taken on many roles for the RSC in recent times and I have to say with mixed results, but this is his tour-de-force. His Vincentio is remarkable. He builds the character and you see a man who is morally good to begin with, building character as the performance goes along. His “Duke” recognises his failings and understands a responsibility for placing a weight on Angelo which the self-righteous and judgemental man is not big enough to bear.
If you want to understand how good Sandy Grierson’s performance as Angelo is, then I suspect you must first see him as Touchstone in the RSC’s current rendition of “As You Like It”. Otherwise, how are you going to understand the range of this fine actor? His Angelo comes at times to be like you might imagine Uriah Heep to be if he suddenly became three-dimensional in your living room, except this “Uriah” would really believe in his strength of character and see no reason why God would want him to be ‘umble. Until the final scenes, he is convinced that even in his passion for Isabella, he could serve his God. And finally, when he emerges in the light of day in brokenness and contrition, wishing only to die, we believe him. A marvellous portrayal.
The essays I have related to earlier are rather sceptical about the merit of Isabella’s character. Lucy Phelps in that part, corrects any misperception here. In her monologues and her dialogue with Angelo, her words are so heartfelt and weighed that you cannot think of her as being coldly religious in the way that Angelo is before he meets her. She is a “saint” in the way that saints are described in the epistles of the New Testament but not someone that you are ready to build a statue of yet. She battles herself. She battles with her love for brother and devotion to God. And finally, we are left with the notion that she has felt that she can only serve God in celibacy but now has a marriage invitation from a fit partner in Vincentio and in this way her character goes on in our imagination beyond the limits of the play.
Claudio, her brother, is also well-drawn and James Cooney handles him well. Amy Trigg as Juliet, his betrothed, is only given a character who is very slight in the original script so the fact that we leave the theatre not understanding her well is not her fault.
Lucio, described in the dramatis personae, as a fantastic, is handled so very well by Joseph Arkley. He is mean and cruel but in such a light-hearted way that it is impossible to hate. However, his failure to take anything with gravity or seriousness, exemplifies why he is the only one not to escape harsh judgement at the end. He has spoken or assessed everyone negatively but also with an air that suggests none of it matters. In a play, where the necessity of the moral rebuilding of a city may be in question, this kind of indifference cannot escape censure. He has to come down on side or the other. Characters like Angelo were wrong but at least they were trying. Lucio simply does not care, and Mr Arkley displays him so very well.
Elbow, the policeman, is like Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing – writ larger than life and unbelievably so. As always, it is Shakespeare’s method to bring light relief while consider the weighty matters of the world and Michael Patrick and particular is inter-action with Claire Price’s Escalus and everyone’s dealings with Amanda Harris’ Provost are quite delightful.
And there is more.. Sophie Khan Levy, who rather upstaged Ms Phelps in “As You Like It”, is dealt the small part of Mariana here and does well with it. Graeme Brookes as Barnadine, the amoral prisoner, who cannot believe he is granted is freedom, also handles it with a certain quality display an insane self-destructive nature. I find it interesting to conject on the similiarity between us name of his character’s name and that of Barabbas in the New Testament, who is also set free in strange circumstances.
A few of the RSC’s recent productions, in their wide experimentation have been successful, some have fallen well short. This production of Measure for Measure is much more conventional. In 2011, the RSC managed a production of “Measure…” which was dull and mundane:
Such a marvellous play should never be that – and Mr Doran has given us something that is thoughtful, provoking and entertaining. Excellent.
 G. Wilson Knight “The Wheel of Fire”, “Measure for Measure and the Gospels”, pg. 80 (Routledge, 2001 edition).
 Ernest Schanzer “The Problem Plays of Shakespeare”, “Measure for Measure”, pg. 73 (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963 edition)