A breezy performance of Shakespeare’s notorious problem play on a hot summer’s day
There are few places I’d rather be on a hot Sunday afternoon that Shakespeare’s Globe. Sure, it’s one part tourist attraction, one part theatre, but that’s partly what makes it such a thrilling place to be. People come here from all over the world to watch a play they may not understand. And everyone loves it, especially the cast who always looks like they’re having the best time even when scowling at helicopters and sweating in their polyester doublets.
In an era of spectacular sets and elaborate immersive theatrical experiences, there’s a real thrill to watching very good actors, dressed in what look like costumes from the RSC reject box, on a bare stage performing works first played on this very spot 500 hundreds years ago. But despite being on the tourist trail, and retreading a London of half a millennium ago, there’s nothing of the museum about the Globe. It pulses with more life than many other London theatres, and feels fresher than a lot of them too.
There is often something of the pantomime about Globe performances (and I don’t mean that as a criticism) and Measure For Measure, artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s swansong for the Globe, is no exception.
Measure For Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem play. Not only does it not fall neatly into the comedy bracket it’s assigned to, but the plot is nuts. For those that don’t know *Sparknotes klaxon* Duke Vincentio, fed up with the debauchery in his city of Vienna pretends to leave town (he actually temporarily dresses as a Friar to watch the town’s antics in disguise. Because, Shakespeare) and leaves his very uptight deputy, Angelo in charge. Angelo is not standing for any of this naughty nonsense and immediately stamps his authority by sentencing Claudio, a young man who has got his girlfriend Juliet pregnant, to death. *Gasp*.
Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is unrelentingly virtuous and pretty – as Vincentio as the Friar observes, “the hand that hath made you fair hath made you good” – a combination that Angelo can’t resist. He promises to release Claudio if Isabella gives up her virginity to him. But, fear not, the Duke/Friar is on hand to hatch a cunning plan which won’t involve Isabella having to sleep with Angelo nor Claudio dying.
Alongside the WTF plot and the dark vein of cynicism that Shakespearean spins through the text, Measure for Measure is a study of patriarchal authority, of male manipulation in a world where women are a commodity, useful only for their bodies which, if they are not going to offer up to men at a price, will have to be blackmailed into it. Obviously this was largely how women were viewed in the early 17th century, and indeed are all too commonly seen today, but it can be uneasy viewing at times.
Dromgoole neatly sidesteps the play’s bigger issues without being flippant and pulls off a great production with plenty of proper hearty laughs (rather than smug English grad Shakespeare guffaws). And there is a happy ending of sorts (although, honestly, if Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio/the Friar wasn’t so charming, I would join the rest of the world in not filing this ending under ‘happy’).
Rowan’s Duke/Friar is a delight among a cast not short on great performances. Globe regular, Brendan O’Hea, who plays flamboyant Lucio, threatens to steal the show, but is given a run for his money by a quick-witted Trevor Fox as Pompey (full marks for the improv when catching a groundling reading the text) and Mariah Gale as an emotional and compassionate Isabella (a tricky feat in a character so defined by her religious doctrine).
All tremendous fun, if not one of the problem play purists (if such a thing exists).