Review by Edel Semple
The conjunction this year of the centenary of the Easter Rising and the quadricentenary of Shakespeare’s death have proved fertile ground for arts, culture, and scholarship across the island of Ireland and further afield. In the spring, for example, Ger Fitzgibbon’s talk in UCC and Andrew Murphy’s talk at the Pearse Museum provided fascinating insights into the place and uses of Shakespeare in Irish history and literature. In London, the all-Irish Taming of the Shrew has just completed its run at Shakespeare’s Globe; the production was set against the backdrop of the Rising, though this was mostly in evidence via Katherine’s embodiment of the fighting spirit and eloquence of her rebel foremothers. (The cause of the suffragettes hovered over the production too, and on this note, a follow up production of The Tamer Tamed, Fletcher’s proto-feminist “sequel” to Shakespeare’s comedy, would have worked superbly – but I digress.) Since July, Fortune’s Fool Productions has toured some of the country’s most beautiful historic sites – Athenry Castle in Galway, Castletown House in Kildare, and Dublin Castle – with its open-air production of Measure for Measure – Ireland 1916.
The director’s notes remark that Measure for Measure has been designated a “problem play” but that this production approaches and presents the material as comic. Despite the weighty moral problems the play tackles and the production’s setting in a period of socio-political turmoil, this Measure was indeed light-hearted and humorous. Notably Angelo – a man so uptight and unfeeling he reportedly pisses ice – was rendered so comical that he lacked any menace whatsoever. His frustrated passion was cartoonish; while thinking of Isabella, Angelo was hilariously overcome by desire and had difficulty walking, and he repeatedly smacked a Bible off his head when the novice misunderstood his hints in 2.4. The buoyant energy of these scenes, Angelo’s silly antics, and Isabella’s relative calm, meant that the audience were in little doubt that somehow all would end well.
Adding to the brisk pace and comic atmosphere was Elbow, played as an Irish Yosemite Sam wholly unable to keep up with the urban criminals. The poor officer was neither physically or mentally as quick as Pompey – his Bugs Bunny – and fruitlessly pursued him around the garden. Later, in a Laurel and Hardy moment, Pompey sat upon Elbow’s back and boldly conducted his business with Madam Lucia. When interviewed by Escalus, Pompey was engaged in some horseplay with Elbow and turning to find the officer’s crotch in his face, he was forced to agree with the lord that his occupation did indeed stink. The play’s dénouement was in keeping with the spirit of the production. The Duke was paternally benevolent and his proposal to Isabella was met with a shy but pleased smile, while Angelo and Mariana seemed satisfied with one another, and even Lucia looked content with her lot.
Measure for Measure – Ireland 1916 included some cross-gendered casting and gender swaps; the Provost was played by a woman while the gallant Lucio became Madam Lucia. This latter change worked well as Lucia, it was claimed, had borne a child thanks to Pompey; the reasons behind Lucia’s refusal to bail Pompey, her necessary independence, and her jaded view of the world became clear and this minor character became a real force in the production.
The play’s action was relocated to Dublin and references to Irish places, culture, and history were commonplace. For example, Mariana sang the folk song “I Know My Love”, Barnadine was now “Belfast-born”, and Countess Markievicz was an inspiration for the Provost’s costume and some of the character’s interests (see the programme for details). There was an ownership and consideration of our past at work here, as the production acknowledged Ireland’s complicated history with Britain, with the Church, and with its own citizens. The thousands of women who were condemned to the Magdalene Laundries, operated by the Catholic Church, were embodied by a lone pregnant mother who scrubbed a shirt under the watchful, unforgiving eye of a nun. Mistress Overdone and her women hailed from Monto, a section in the north inner city infamous in the early twentieth century as a red-light district that drew much of its business from the nearby British army barracks. Measure focuses on the Duke and the dilemmas of a well-to-do sister and brother, but this production drew attention to the lives of other, ordinary citizens. When the Duke, Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio took centre stage, the fortunes of the working class poor were pointedly played out on the margins of the space; a poor country girl sought help at the castle door (it remained shut), prostitutes advertised their wares to the audience on the streets (garden paths), while civil and church servants went about their business in the prison and government offices (walled areas). All of this worked well but the shift from Vienna to Dublin meant that some early modern terms, such as “bawd” and “punk”, stood out; changing the odd word to Irish slang would have strengthened the clarity and humour of some lines.
Performed in the Dubh Linn Gardens, in Dublin Castle, Measure took advantage of the garden space, which had surprisingly good acoustics, and the twenty or so actors made full use of their green stage. (Seriously, a tip of the hat to Fortune’s Fool’s cast and crew as it took some energy to master and traverse the wide space and project words and emotion for two hours in the damp air and to compete on occasion with the rowdy seagulls.) The audience always had something to look at and turn to as characters entered from and exited to different locations; the space in front of the Coach House was used as Angelo’s office, the prison was a walled area, the lawns and paths were the city streets, and so on. Overall, this production was a pacey and fun rendition of Measure – it was worth braving the Irish summer weather for and it makes a fine contribution to the commemorations of 1916 and Shakespeare 400.
Measure for Measure – Ireland 1916 runs in Dublin Castle until Sunday 14th August 2016. The production is part of the British Council’s “Shakespeare Lives” programme. The show is approximately two hours long and there is no interval. The production’s programme is available here. Social media: #ShakespeareLives and #M4M-Ire1916
For more on Shakespeare 400 in Ireland see earlier posts and on Twitter: #ShaxIrl400 #Shakespeare400 #ShakespeareLives