One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, Measure for Measure is a piece that may seem to be a little odd, particularly for modern audiences, situated at the seemingly incongruous crossroads between light comedy and, if not outright tragedy, certainly a degree of intense moral seriousness underscored by some rather dark dilemmas. Dealing with a number of characters who each find themselves in morally fraught situations that have potentially dire consequences, and yet laced throughout with humorous moments and capped with a multiple-marriages ending more in line with standard comedies, it is up to each production to try and reconcile these elements into a dramatically functional whole that a contemporary audience can accept. Some interpretations play up the comedy, while others strive for gravitas. A middle course is perhaps the most common, and this is what we have here.
Seeking to instill the weighty scenes with adequate heft, director David MacSwan has his key actors (including himself) perform with relative seriousness by default, always making the dire stakes of the drama seem genuine and the emotions strong but not overwrought. When the time comes for humour, it is not shied away from either, allowing for comic relief without creating a drastic break in tone. The complex conclusion, in which the puppeteering Duke Vincentio untangles his various manipulations into a resolution, is handled quite well, managing to make the potentially absurd scenario seem neither inappropriately frivolous nor leadenly moralistic.
Indeed, with Measure for Measure the essence of any production’s approach depends on how the major characters are depicted, as the way they come across is crucial to determining the rather precarious tone of the piece. Is the Duke a wily manipulator or a scheming bastard? Is Isabella a sympathetic victim or an unlikable prig? Is Angelo merely a flawed man or a callow villain? Does Claudio elicit our sympathy or distain? Between the actors’ own instincts and MacSwan’s direction we get an array of choices, most of which work quite well.
From Patricia Cotter we get an earnest Isabella in whom we can emotionally invest, whose distress at her predicament rings true and whose stubborn principles seem to integrate into her character convincingly in an appealing performance. As her brother Claudio, Henry Richardson is very credible as a man conflicted, and Michael Faustmann has a strong presence in the small role of Escalus. Geoff McLean provides an appropriately slimy Lucio, and Alixandra Kupcik does nicely as a knowing Provost.
A lot hinges on the part of Duke Vincentio who, although not the main character per se, has an Iago-like prominence as the figure pulling all the others’ strings, and is clearly the plum role. Taking it on himself, MacSwan gives a strong, somewhat arch performance, affording the character an internalised energy and smug confidence that plays well to the part’s implicit arrogance. Without imbuing the character with overt unpleasantness, he does not quake at making the Duke seem calculating and haughty, a man rather lacking in warmth while gifted with an overabundance of cunning. In directing himself, MacSwan makes a few nice choices in the staging that foreshadow a couple of the narrative’s more surprising developments.
Finally, while Chris Rodwell’s characterisation of the hypocrite Angelo as a selfconscious neurotic was a valid interpretation of the role, his performance sadly lacked the veracity to make the character compelling. Perhaps better suited to quirkier roles, Rodwell seemed fundamentally miscast.
Aside from this and the clunky and ultimately unnecessary use of blackouts between scenes, 2009’s Shakespeare by the Sea production of Measure for Measure is a charming and entertaining one, its streamlined cast and judiciously pruned text is pacey and easy to follow. Come early, find a parking space, bring some cushions and a picnic dinner and you can make a very pleasant evening of it.
Shakespeare By the Sea
Measure For Measure
Venue: The Band Rotunda, Balmoral Beach, The Esplanade, Mosman
Dates: Jan 16 - March 8, 2009
Bookings: (02) 99690824