Review by Edel Semple
The Globe’s Measure for Measure, screened live around Ireland on May 10th, was artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s farewell to the Globe mainstage in 2015 and what a farewell it was. I watched the play from the comfortable environs of one of Movies @ Dundrum’s smaller cinema screens. As the screening was well-attended – the Shakespeare fans responded in time with the playhouse audience and buzzed during the interval – and as the elegant décor incorporated a mock proscenium arch, the venue had a pleasing and moreover fitting theatrical ambiance.
The feeling that we were in the theatre was intensified by the improvised preamble to the play; the camera moved amongst the groundlings who looked on bemused as pimps touted their trade and prostitutes hit on unsuspecting audience members. One prostitute even dragged a customer into a brothel (a miniature hut), which cannily included a window so that we could catch glimpses of what services were on offer (the structure was later torn down, on Angelo’s orders). With Mistress Overdone and the prostitutes in gaudy makeup and over-flowing bodices, Pompey the pimp drolly commenting on the action, and the beadles dashing about like Keystone Cops, the play began as a kind of Carry On Vienna. The opening scene however, staging the Duke’s departure, brought a sober note to the proceedings.
The youthful, likeable Duke was by turns sombre and apprehensive, and hyperactive and witty. He seized Angelo enthusiastically, for instance, when the puritanical deputy entered, babbled about his plans, but then resisted the pleasantries of his subordinates to exit hastily with a grave “fare you well”. The Duke’s sudden urge to overturn Vienna’s civic morality was thus understandable as a quirk of personality, and he stood as an embodiment of this Jacobean problem play’s shifts in tone and energy.
In this production, Measure’s dark undertone – Vienna is in the grip of moral decay, an economic downturn, and a sexual health crisis – was treated alternately with cheerfulness and deadly seriousness. Disguised as a friar, the Duke sometimes preached hellfire and brimstone (roaring at the pregnant Julietta, for example) but more often he was bumbling and ineffectual, lackadaisically blessing anyone who passed. Arrested in Overdone’s brothel and arraigned before Escalus, the gentleman Froth ended up naked from the waist down in some hilarious physical comedy; his bare backside waving at the audience again recalled the antics of a Carry On film. Froth and Escalus then congratulated each other on how funny they both were (puns, the height of humour!), before the young gent was set free; the old boys’ network was alive and well in the city. The urban sex workers however fared much worse. During scene changes, a beadle dragged a screaming prostitute through the crowd and later we saw her branded on the face for her crimes.
At the helm of the harsh new regime is Angelo, the Duke’s deputy. Dressed in black, Angelo was puritanical and logical, but he was wholly thrown by his sudden passion for the young novice nun, Isabella. We were reminded of the lack of the ‘fourth wall’ in the Globe and the fantastic uses its absence can be put to, when, stricken and genuinely at a loss, Angelo looked to the audience for answers asking, “The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” After his attack on Isabella – a near rape, which he halted at the last second – the deputy naturally fell back on his status as his trump card. Prone on the floor in her novice’s shift, Isabella’s plight (“Did I tell this, who would believe me?”) was emphasised further by the swelling of a plaintive violin.
For all the moral wrangling and soul-searching of the play’s main protagonists, it was Lucio and Pompey who stole the show in this production of Measure. Lucio took nothing seriously and, it seemed, he had never had to take responsibility for anything in his life. The duty of securing Isabella’s aid was thus a new experience for the foppish man-child, and he visibly preened at being Claudio’s intimate before dashing – his signature mincing walk was endlessly comical – to the convent. Lucio’s levity – his avid gossiping, his casual groping of a nun’s breasts, his mockery of the arrested Pompey, and his derision of the absentee Duke – came to an abrupt if humorous halt when he learned of the punishment for his dissolute life. At the Duke’s announcement, no less than three women, standing amongst the groundlings, identified themselves as “wronged” by Lucio, but they speedily lowered their hands at the prospect of marrying this “lewd fellow”. If Lucio thought marrying a prostitute was a death sentence, the women affirmed that marriage to him was equally fatal.
Pompey Bum, the bawd with the great posterior, affected the air of a sage by leaning on his cane and dispensing wisdom learned from his observations of the average citizen. His insights were lost on Escalus, though the audience lapped up his chicanery in explaining what was done to Elbow’s wife in the brothel (whatever it was, it wasn’t done once!). Again making full use of the Globe’s space, Pompey, newly employed in the prison, picked out audience members as current prisoners and past clients of the brothel. Vienna was a corrupt city and we were all implicated in its vices.
The play’s finale was thoughtfully and carefully handled. Mariana, who initially appeared like a female Orsino enthralled by love and music, had her say and delivered some punishment for her suffering by landing a hearty slap on Angelo’s face. Kneeling before the Duke, Mariana and Isabella positively oozed power. Although the women were pawns in the Duke’s scheme, this was a forceful and moving spectacle. The sight of such sororal unity also highlighted the conflict between, and moral ambiguity of, the ruling males. The Duke’s sudden proposal of marriage to Isabella was comically awkward, and he hastily turned his attention to Lucio in order to give the young novice some time to think. When the Duke proposed again, his “So…” hung and lingered, awaiting a response. Isabella was uncertain, but it was clearly her choice, and she stood to take his hand. The play’s final lines then blurred seamlessly into the beginning of the concluding dance, led by Vienna’s newest couple.
Overall, in its compelling exploration of the dualities at the heart of Measure, and its willingness to see the fun in and seriousness of the play’s moral questions, the Globe production made for a smart and engaging staging of this problem play. As suggested in a recent guest post by Kate Timperley of Arts Alliance (the distributors of Globe on Screen), these screenings are the next best thing to actually being at the Bankside theatre. Sitting in the cinema, we may not get to mingle with Mistress Overdone, Lucio, and Pompey, but with the high quality of these filmed productions we get pretty close – ladies and gentlemen, mind your purses and your morals!