Measure for Measure, trans. and dir. Jack Nieborg, Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, September 2019Comedy

  • Paul Franssen

Measure for Measure, translated and directed by Jack Nieborg, Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, 7 September 2019.

Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)


Photograph by Koen Timmerman. A shy Isabella (Inge Wijers).

As usual in Diever, the auditorium was split in two by the narrow central stage. Spectators were faced with the one-dimensional outline of a row of houses in the middle, and churches on either side of the stage. Large, window-shaped cut-outs allowed the audience on both sides to see what was happening; and with their huge arches, these windows sometimes looked like the niches containing the statues of saints or monarchs on the outside of a cathedral. In the very centre of the stage was an elevated platform that mostly served as the rostrum from which a powerful male addressed his subjects. Underneath this seat of power, the bars of the prison were visible, behind which Claudio sometimes appeared.

Before the show started, costumes were hanging all over the stage, which created the impression of a slum; some of the actors were being made up in full view of the audience, and gradually they put on the various garments, so that, by the time the performance began, all the clothes had gone from the set. The costumes, apart from those for the nuns and friars, seemed designed to accentuate gender differences. The male costumes in particular had huge shoulder pieces, Angelo’s most of all. The prostitutes wore bodices and frilly bloomers, reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Pastel colours were predominant, with the Duke, Angelo, and the nuns all dressed in pale blue.

In a year when most professional Dutch theatre companies decided not to stage Shakespeare or any other classic dramatist, the Diever amateur theatre company showed once more just how relevant Shakespeare still is—or can be made to be. The choice of play for this season, decided upon a year ago, was probably inspired by the topical affairs of that moment, which have not lost their interest since: me-too, fake news, trial by media, and the general public’s volatility in public debates. These, rather than piety or sexual abstinence, were the themes foregrounded by this production.

The role of the general public as a many-headed twittering monster was suggested by placing all of the actors, when they were not needed on stage, among the audience, occasionally shouting their comments from there. This could be merely funny, as when they repeatedly reminded hesitant characters on-stage of what country the Duke was supposedly visiting (“Poland!”); but sometimes it was almost threatening, as when Mistress Overdone’s accusation that Lucio had impregnated one of her girls, Kate Keepdown, was greeted by shouts like: “Fake News!” At other times, the people’s voice was common-sensical. When the duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, suggested that Angelo had merely tried to test Isabella’s virtue (3.1.160ff), the actors in the audience reacted in utter disbelief: “You must be crazy!”, one was heard to shout. All criminal or questionable behaviour was exposed in public. When Claudio complained to the Provost of his public shaming and desired just to be led to prison (1.2.105), he wore a sign around his neck saying “Fornication;” later Pompey and Mistress Overdone were treated similarly. Erratic as public opinion seemed to be, not all reported crimes were fake news. Angelo here did not just blackmail Isabella, but on her second visit he tried to rape her on-stage, throwing her down and tearing her dress and knickers.

Most attention was attracted by Isabella. The actress, Inge Wijers, was generally praised by reviewers as a promise for the future. She played her role as an impassioned young woman, courageous and determined, yet without any obvious piety. Wijers’ novice was somewhat awkward, lacking in the social graces. Like the other nuns, she was startled by Lucio’s visit to the convent in 1.4, and wanted to run away; when it became clear that it was her that Lucio wanted to speak to, another nun cravenly pushed her forward, to deal with that dangerous creature alone. Isabella then overcame her hesitation, when she heard her brother’s life was at stake. Also in her dealings with Angelo, she was unsure of how to approach him; sometimes deferential, at other times almost cheeky. Here Jack Nieborg’s free Dutch translation also helped, as she hailed Angelo (and other dignitaries) with an overfamiliar “Hoi!” [“Hi there!”], and oscillated between the polite, formal form of the second person pronoun and the indecorous, familiar form. “Angelo, man, listen to your heart!”, she appealed to him. Rather than having Lucio with her on her first visit (2.2), to encourage her to try once again to persuade Angelo, she bravely faced the deputy alone. On her second visit, when Angelo tried to rape her, she struggled bravely, and with success: by pulling his wig from his bald head, she made him lose his appetite for the moment. This unexpected, farcical outcome of a highly serious scene earned her a big laugh from the audience. When the duke/Friar Lodowick later began to propose his bed-trick plan to her, telling her he had a plan that would help out a “poor wronged lady” (3.1.196), meaning Marianna, Isabella interjected: “I am not a poor wronged lady!”, and we believed her: she was far from a helpless victim. When he then instructed her to agree to Angelo’s proposals, she almost walked out on him. Yet at the end, this brave girl, too, was at a loss for words, when the duke suddenly proposed to her, then walked off stage, commanding her to follow him to the church. She was left alone on stage, flabbergasted, obviously reluctant to follow him but hesitant about what to do.

Although the performance dealt with serious issues, this is not to say that the comedy was forgotten. In its fast-paced rhythm, the show switched constantly between scenes of high seriousness and farce. Isabella occasionally burst into over-the-top hysterical screaming, as when her brother begged her to give in to Angelo. When the dead pirate’s head was needed to stand in for Claudio’s, Pompey went underneath the stage and loud sawing noises were heard. He then threw up a head with the stereotypical pirate’s eye-patch, but in his enthusiasm he produced one more head, plus a number of limbs, until the Provost cried down to him, “That will do!” The remains of the pirate’s body were then also brought upstairs, to be taken away in a coffin, but the corpse fell out. When another nun, Francesca, came on, she was confronted with the corpse, and ran off in hysterics.

Lucio (Floris Albrecht), too, provided much of the comedy, in his obvious folly and hypocrisy. When Pompey appealed to him for help, his basic meanness and feelng of superiority were obvious. His punishment, having to marry Kate Keepdown at once, felt fully deserved.

The duke was an elusive character. In the opening speech, he addressed his people very much like a politician on election night, trying to win their hearts by talking down to them. In this sense he was the opposite of Angelo, who seemed aloof and arrogant. When the duke later asked whether Angelo should be dealt with as he had dealt with Claudio—”measure for measure”—(5.1.412-18), speaking from the platform, the audience was moved to silence. Yet this very character, the one man whom Isabella trusted, betrayed her in the end by almost demanding, rather than proposing, marriage to her. Men, in this production, tended to be unreliable creatures. The nuns’ instinctive fear of them looked like a merely farcical element at first, but turned out to be justified in the end.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016).