Measure for Measure, The Factory Theatre @ The Willow Globe (Y Glôb Byw)
Reviewed by Eoin Price (Swansea University)
The Willow Globe (Y Glôb Byw) is an enchanting theatre woven from willow that stands on an organic farm at Penlanole near Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales. Beyond its green walls sheep graze in an adjacent field. The theatre’s website describes it as ‘a scaled down, living version of the Globe in London, being a third of its size in diameter’. At the centre of its thrust stage, a wooden structure, also encased in willow, acts as a tiring house, complete with gallery. The theatre owners, Philip Bowen and Sue Best, run numerous events in the local community and produce a variety of shows but they also play host to visiting companies, such as the London-based The Factory Theatre who brought their production of Measure for Measure to mid-Wales for one night only. A capacity crowd packed into the benches of the small theatre space on a mercifully rain-free but nonetheless slightly chilly late-July evening to see a boisterous and fast-moving production.
The production’s advertising poster promised that, in the hands of the energetic company, Measure for Measure ‘will no longer be “a problem play”’. The performers stayed true to their promise by emphasising moments of comic absurdity. The company made a comic virtue of their limited props: the friar’s habit worn for much of the play by Scott Brooksbank’s Duke was a bright red rain jacket. On occasions, his movement, coupled with the occasional breeze, caused him to become unhooded, but rather than breaking illusion, this simply underlined the essential funniness of the disguise plot. Brooksbank regularly employed a self-conscious delivery style, spoke in a fake French accent when in disguise, and often consulted the audience directly when alone onstage in a successful attempt to build a comic rapport. On one memorable moment, he was interrupted, mid-speech, by a particularly loud sheep: it seemed entirely appropriate, for this was a Duke making things up as he went along and able, somehow, to navigate whatever problem lay in his way, be it a corrupt deputy or an ovine interloper.
Interestingly, the relationship between Angelo (John Hopkins) and Isabella (Nell Mooney) also drew laughter. Hopkins played up Angelo’s exasperation at Isabella’s inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge his sexual overtures. This humorous treatment threatened briefly to obscure the profoundly disturbing nature of Angelo’s treatment of Isabella but, in an effective tonal shift, Angelo moved from mild frustration to outright anger when his proposition was rejected. He left the stage accompanied by boos and hisses from an audience which, throughout the production, participated vocally in the performance. But if this comic negotiation worked well, there were times when the relentless attempts to de-problematize the play were less satisfactory. It was a shame, for example, that the Duke’s beautiful ‘Be absolute for death’ speech should be undersold: Brooksbank’s adopted French accent proved a distraction and the Provost (Al Barclay) interrupted the flow of the speech’s opening for reasons that were not entirely clear. The sense of the horrible importance of this moment was not fully conveyed and this, in turn made it harder for Claudio (Ben Thompson) to relay his own desperation. His speech ‘Ay but to die and go we know not where’ is a wonderful repost to ‘Be absolute for death’ but if the Duke’s speech is undersold it makes it harder for Claudio’s reply to achieve maximum effect.
Ultimately, many of the production’s best moments came through its skilful humour. Dean Ashton, for example, was a delightful Elbow because he played the character earnestly, rather than attempting, as less successful actors have done, to play the part with a hint of knowing irony. This Elbow had no idea he was the butt of the jokes. Yet the production was also largely able to recognize the seriousness, as well as the frivolity, of the play’s many dilemmas. Mooney’s excellent Isabella was bold and assertive when faced with corruption, never more so than in the final act, when her attempt to reveal Angelo’s abuse of power was rewarded with a vocalization of solidarity – ‘Here here!’ – from one emboldened audience member. Barclay’s Provost was also imbued with an interesting degree of ambiguity. Early in the play, he paraded Claudio onstage shouting ‘Bawd!’ and encouraging the audience to point in derision at his prisoner. He did this again, later, when parading Mistress Overdone (Denise Stephenson). But this callous public persona was in contrast to his conduct in private: he challenged Angelo and showed himself to be disturbed by the strict punishments meted out by the Venetian regime. Equally, Rhys Meredith’s Lucio was an enjoyably ambiguous figure. Meredith ensured that each of Lucio’s brilliantly barbed quips hit their mark. This mischievous and opportunistic figure was the one character apparently able to cause the Duke genuine discomfort.
Yet those moments of distress were few and far between. At the end of the production Isabella delightedly accepted the Duke’s marriage proposal to cheers and applause from the crowd. It was still possible to identify areas of concern – the Duke’s silencing of Lucio was vindictive and the glowering Angelo did not look like a repentant sinner – but the atmosphere was unquestionably celebratory. I must admit, this isn’t the way I choose to read Measure for Measure but it felt oddly refreshing to see the play in a different light. When performed sombrely the play can misfire and become irritatingly po-faced; when played satirically it can seem forced (though Cheek by Jowl handled topical resonances wonderfully in their recent Russian language revival). The Factory sidestepped these difficulties with a charming production which revelled in its own absurdities, from the extraordinary coincidences of the plot – much mirth was made at the convenience of the death of the pirate Ragozine – to the minor interruptions of nature. The company found joy and pleasure in the bareness of the stage and the liveness of the location.