By William Shakespeare
Whose Law Is It Anyway?
It was hot, hot, hot at The Globe and that wasn’t just the sex and corruption on view in Shakespeare’s 1604 (or thereabouts) ‘problem’ play Measure For Measure. For the groundlings’ fans were fluttering as we sweltered in a catch-it-while-it-lasts fully-fledged British heatwave!
For those who don’t know the latest 1604 salacious gossip, the puritan Lord Angelo (Kurt Egyiawan), deputizing for the Duke of Vienna (Dominic Rowan) and a martinet when it comes to enforcing the law of no sex without marriage, has been caught trying to having his wicked way with novice nun Isabella (Mariah Gale).
A bit rich, since Isabella only came to him to plead for her brother Claudio’s (Joel MacCormack) life after the latter admitted getting one Juliet (no, not that Juliet, another one in the shape of Naana Agyei-Ampadu) up the duff and now faces execution.
And the state, after turning a blind eye for many a year, has suddenly found itself shocked, shocked to find debauchery and brothels on nearly every street corner.
Will Angelo get away with it? Will Isabella save her brother? And how will she save her brother? And will Duke Vincentio save Vienna, even if it thinks it doesn’t need saving?
Well, it is termed a comedy rather than a tragedy, so perhaps you can guess at least some of the answers. And Artistic Director’s Dominic Dromgoole’s swansong production at The Globe certainly seeks to milk every ounce of comedy with the bawdiest of bawds (Petra Massey), a light-footed roly poly Constable (crowd-pleasing Dean Nolan) a wobbly man toy who seems to be able to right himself after numerous tumbles, a Duke who seems to have leapt off the alternative comedy circuit and even a play on the name of Claudio reminiscent of the Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein pronounciation quip
But Measure For Measure is also a late, dark play alongside Troilus and Cressida, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest with echos of The Merchant of Venice and, while harking back to the mores of another age, strangely modern in its take on economic, sex and marriage issues.
Claudio has broken the law with Juliet because she cannot marry while her merchant relatives keep back her dowry to use in their business. There’s the fear of single motherhood. The Duke, who doesn’t want to be the baddie, allowing brothels for many years and then stamping down on them, delegates responsibility to others.
Angelo of course would now be ripe titillating hypocrite fodder for many a tabloid. For the broadsheets also, having rejected on spurious grounds fiancée Marianne (Rosie Hilal) after she loses her dowry and the implications of the “private order” to expedite Claudio’s execution.
Even the crude pun on marriage by the-pimp-turned-assistant-executioner Pompey (Trevor Fox) almost (but not quite) makes equals of husbands and wives: “If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can; but if he a married man, he’s his wife’s head and I can never cut off a woman’s head.”
The Duke’s words give Juliet’s lover a status in modern lingo: “Your partner, as I hear, must die tomorrow.” And his final words to Isabella have a modern ring: “What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine”, taking their relationship with each other outside the realms of family and dowry.
So how well does this production marry the dark and lighter shades? The bawds are rightly called bawds and fill the large Globe stage, but it does sometimes feel like comic overload undermining the darker aspects of a play examining weighty issues.
However, Mariah Gale makes an intriguing Isabelle – initially an over schooled student, shying away from life, with rehearsed speeches before finding her own voice and clear-sighted disgust as first her brother’s and then her own situation becomes more and more desperate. In the final scene, as she retreats to a chair and tries to make sense of the situation, we believe in her baptism of fire into worldliness, the uncertainty of events and people.
Kurt Egyiawan’s Angelo is more inscrutable and it does feel sometimes that his interpretation is the play straining at the bit for a modern dress version.
Indeed, the New Orleans tinge to the music made a pleasing and somehow plausible mash-up in this production.
It’s with the Duke that the problems of this problem play are highlighted. In this ultimate ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodies’ play, he seems a figure hoofing it. This brings out a lot of humour in his tonsured disguise as a religious friar but this personality seems at odds to the supposed restoration of order at the end of the play, despite his humble profession on his knees asking Isabella for her hand in marriage.
So the different measures of this production were not always equal for us, but we award it a golden sunshiny amber light.