Measure for Measure – directed by Dominic Dromgoole for Shakespeare’s Globe at The Globe Theatre, London. July 15, 2015.
Reviewed by Audrey Schaffner
The Globe Theatre’s comedic, raucous, and sometimes bawdy production of Measure for Measure, which plays through October 17, effectively portrays the out-of-control Vienna in Shakespeare’s play. Literal houses of prostitution populate the standing area of the theatre as the play begins, while the Duke, eventually the master manipulator of the play, quietly broods alone on stage. As a feud erupts between outspoken prostitutes and devout reformers, the groundlings seem to forget that the Duke (Dominic Rowan) is present, passively taking in the chaos behind him. Although not strictly necessary, director Dominic Dromgoole utilizes this extra bit of story to set up an immediate comparison of the extreme virtue and vice in Vienna. However, the play’s serious themes—for which the play was presumably chosen for the Globe’s Justice and Mercy season—are somewhat obscured by Dromgoole’s choice to lighten the play’s weightier themes with a mixture of crude humor and slapstick. Nevertheless, by portraying complex characters who show how confusing appearances can seem, the players demonstrate the real difficulty of judging another person with distinctly human flaws.
For example, Mariah Gale does not portray a strict and puritanical Isabella; instead, Gale’s soft-spoken but still assured Isabella encourages empathy by eschewing a domineering, holier-than-thou attitude. Isabella’s distinctly powerful moments are delivered via her passionate wit, and Gale uses Isabella’s ability to explicitly express herself to bring a subtle yet intimidating confidence to Isabella.
Like Gale, Dominic Rowan chooses to play Duke Vincentio of Vienna from an unusual angle. Taking a comedic approach to the Duke, Rowan propels the plot by rather haphazardly manipulating other characters toward his end goal of resolving Isabella’s situation with Angelo. Rowan’s portrayal of a spontaneous Duke who acts to right a wrong is a refreshing change from a calculating and weaselly Duke, but some of the Duke’s depth of character is lost when the audience forgets that it was the his own appointment of the under-qualified Angelo that necessitated his attempts to help the gentle Isabella.
Unfortunately, the interactions between Gale and Rowan (as well as other important scenes) are at times rather flatly received by the audience because of the setup of the stage itself. The triangular addition to the front of the stage, where many scenes take place, significantly impairs sightlines throughout the audience and severely damages the audibility of the actors’ performances for some playgoers. Although this adaptation of the stage is conservative compared to other examples from Dromgoole’s tenure as artistic director, the Globe stage, and many of the cast members, did not shine because the space was poorly used for the production. However, in this case, the talented cast manages to overcome the awkwardness, effectively pitting the absurdly lascivious against the extremely rigid with a sense of ease.
This display of contrasts between virtue and vice begins with the supporting characters whose roles highlight the competition between order and chaos. Lucio (Brendan O’Hea), Elbow (Dean Nolan), Froth (Dennis Herdman), and the infamous Mistress Overdone (Petra Massey), show the out-of-control state of Vienna. O’Hea’s Lucio shines by providing a hilarious commentary on the Duke’s character, and O’Hea manages to command every corner of the stage any time he prances along in his outrageous lime green costume designed by Jonathan Fensom. Unlike O’Hea, the production’s other comedic characters downplay the absurdity of the political and emotional state in Vienna by focusing on attaining a few easy laughs from the audience.
In a stark contrast to these outrageous characters, who bring a new level of bawdy and bodily comedy to the performance, roles such as Angelo (Kurt Egyiawan) and his fellow Escalus (Paul Rider) should drive home the play’s serious themes. Unfortunately, the contrast of these characters is located in rather monotone performances by both Egyiawan and Rider, so when the generally disliked Angelo attempts to attack Isabella on stage, his efforts are unconvincing. Surprisingly, Trevor Fox’s Pompey, usually played as a buffoon, becomes a more effective sobering voice of the play as he speaks eye-opening truths. Fox provides a darker humor with an added measure of a sharp wit, and, like O’Hea’s Lucio, Fox adds some depth to a broadly comic role.
Even though a light, comedic quality infuses the entire performance, including the Duke’s surprising proposal to Isabella in the final scene, the production does achieve a commentary on the two opposing forces of virtue and vice throughout. Gale effectively conveys the idea that virtue in the time of Shakespeare “was not just a synonym for chastity or virginity,” as Farah Karim-Cooper makes clear in her programme piece “Bawdy Court Drama”; rather, Karim-Cooper argues, virtue in 1604 “was a state of being.” Gale’s Isabella moves in and out of the comedic performances of others and shows that every character, even the rule-abiding Isabella, has the possibility to change and grow. In a “Talking Theatre” discussion following the July 15 performance, Gale mentioned that she chose to represent Isabella’s heart moving from a focus on inward virtue to a focus on outward virtue, a choice motivated by Gale’s understanding of what it would mean for Isabella to take vows as a nun. After discussing her role with a nun and a friar, Gale stated that she understood the vows ultimately as a promise to serve others, and one way for Isabella, the virtuous figure of the play, to accomplish this goal would be to expand her scope of influence by partnering with the Duke. For Gale, Isabella’s chastity and purity are not discarded as she physically sheds her religious garments, beginning with her white cap and ending as she subtly lays down her rosary; rather, Isabella chooses to redirect the qualities that would have been incorporated in her vows.
In the end, even though Gale reacts hilariously with open-mouthed, wide-eyed confusion when Rowan blurts out the Duke’s first proposal, this comedic production still manages to evince an air of gravity. Addressing the serious issues of justice and mercy up to the last line, the production leaves audience members with an image of a changed Vienna, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that this changed Vienna is in good hands.