Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s three ‘problem-plays’, which seems to be written as a comedy, but also encompasses darker, more serious ideas about morality, hypocrisy and forgiveness. It is also a play in which Shakespeare has created one of the ultimate female roles for women, in the character of Isabella – a chaste nun, anxious to be good and pure, but with a fiery temper and a knack for turning powerful men on without meaning to.
The Duke, so the story goes, leaves town and places authority in the hands of Angelo, a stern and severe man who immediately clamps down on immorality and lude behaviour running rife throughout the city. Claudio, Isabella’s brother, is sentenced to death by Angelo for the crime of fornication outside of marriage, after he gets his fiance pregnant and Isabella, when she goes to Angelo to beg for her brother’s life, is presented with an impossible choice. She must either go to bed with Angelo, completely spoiling her plans for a chaste life and a great gig as a pure soul in the afterlife, or allow Claudio to be executed if she refuses. A run of hatched-plans, clever secrets, bait-and-switches, jaw-droppingly misogynist behaviour takes place onstage culminating in several happy, and unhappy, marriages. There are many ways to take the story, and any number of interpretations as to where Shakespeare was coming from in terms of his depiction of women and the moral choices we are faced with in life.
Both cast and crew, under the direction of Aubrey Mellor, have obviously put a tremendous amount of work into this production of a particularly challenging play. Measure for Measure is not a work that offers easy answers, and it can be difficult to make sense of a number of key decisions made by the characters.
Hugo Johnstone-Burt as the Duke conveys a good and kindly lord, and does a great job in taking full command of the stage in the final scenes of the play while Ryan Corr plays an elegantly evil Angelo. Isabella, played by Shari Sebbens, offers a resolute and determined Isabella, but plays the part very chaste, and perhaps too stiff, clamped tight and earnest. The fiery, hot-tempered side of Isabella is largely lost in Sebbens’ interpretation, and with a fairly cold and proper performance, it’s difficult to believe that the severe Angelo would lust after her so shortly after first meeting her.
Some actors were hampered by overly complex costuming which came apart in various scenes throughout, the play. Other wardrobe issues such as necklaces knocked askew or entangled and hastily put back in place, served to frustrate the actors and pull focus from the story.
Overall the design was bold, adventurous and detailed, and a clear testament to the creative drive and craftsmanship of this year's design students. The stage was filled with heavy wooden moveable walls painted a rich glossy black, suave black robes for the aristocracy, soft jade green and grey gowns and religious attire for the nuns, tiny flower petals blown about the stage with a wind machine, space-age friar robes that seemed straight out of a Star Wars movie, mannequins, big-breasted whore-mistresses covered in feathers, tight-black leather suits, wildly coloured hair and wigs... the list goes on. This is a show certainly not lacking in adornment, but in the end it felt like the production was heaving under the weight of so much stuff - complex scene changes and complex costumes that the actors struggled to incorporate into their performance.
The comic roles of Pompey and Lucio, played by Ben Vigers and Kenji Fitzgerald largely fell flat. Fitzgerald's Lucio was largely played as a sinister lecher, and the bright, lively cheekiness of the role, which is meant to delight the audience and give them a chance to breathe between the tougher dramatic scenes, didn't really click into place.
Overall, the production felt too one-dimensionally dark and weighed-down to really soar. However, moments of humour and dramatic interplay offered good entertainment, and the actors showed good command of the rich and beautiful language. It should be remembered that this is a student production of a complex and demanding play, and the hard work and high energy from the cast and crew is something to be greatly admired.
NIDA Second Year presents
Measure For Measure
By William Shakespeare
Venue: Parade Space
Dates: 9 - 15 July 2008