As well as being the first night of Measure for Measure at the Globe it was my first time as a groundling – which gives you a rather different perspective…
Firstly, I’m going to gush a little about how much I love going to the Globe. Being a groundling gets you so close to the action that you can’t help but feel more involved (or, in my case, a little distracted by the costumes, especially the hand-knitted stockings) but at the same time, because it is (a) round and (b) naturally lit, you are also much more aware of the rest of the audience and the extent to which you are sharing an experience. Although apologies to the American couple next to me with whom I may have overshared the history of the Globe. They moved at the interval…
I hadn’t seen Measure for Measure before, and my knowledge of the play was limited to a quote I used to see painted on a builders’ van – “For if our virtues did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike as if we had them not”* and a sketchy idea of the plot we were given in GCSE English before we were made to analyse Tennyson’s Mariana to death. The plot I had in mind was
therefore: Bloke called Claudio is going to be killed for getting his betrothed pregnant, Angelo (who is in charge) offers to pardon Claudio if his sister Isabella (who is in holy orders) agrees to sleep with Angelo, they substitute Mariana (who is in fact Angelo’s spurned bride) and then the muddle somehow gets resolved. It turns out there is a bit more to it than this…
The important framing device is the absence of the Duke of Vienna**, who has gone off, leaving the city to Angelo’s ministrations, and hoping that he will be able to enforce laws against licentiousness which he has left un-enforced.
This also sets up the B-plot involving the bawd and the brothelkeeper, who are also running foul of Angelo’s new strictness. Trevor Fox and Petra Massey were this most egregious pair, both larger than life and playing off each other and the rest of cast in outrageous, exuberant fashion. Trevor Fox handled Pompey’s wordplay deftly, while Petra Massey often stole the scene with antics outside the script – I have seen her also in Mrs Hudson’s Christmas Cracker and Oedipussy, and she has an astonishing gift for bawdy physical humour which runs through all of the roles, even though they are in no other ways alike.
The bridge between them and the A-plot is Lucio – a mincing, preening nobleman, a pitch-perfect performance by Brendan O’Hea which managed to distil the essence of every fop from Sir Percy Blakeney to Captain Jack Sparrow.
And onto the meat of the play – Angelo’s attempt to compel virtuous Isabel to commit the same crime for which her brother is condemned to die. I can see why this is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays – there is a very serious morality tale in the heart of it, sitting alongside a lot of sexual innuendo and a murderer with a hangover. It is a grey-on-grey morality where almost everyone is in some measure wrong – the Duke for leaving, Angelo for his hypocrisy (both in the specific instance of his coercion of Isabella and his general attitude that he “scarce confesses That his blood flows, or that his appetite Is more to bread than stone”), Claudio and Juliet for having had sex before marriage, and Isabella is left with the impossible dilemma of saving her brother or her honour. No wonder, then, that the resolution of such a tangle requires the Duke in disguise as a meddlesome friar***, a woman who appears in only two scenes, and a three-way juggling of executions and prisoners****.
Thus the play is carried on the shoulders of the three main characters – the Duke/friar, Isabella, and Angelo. Luckily the Globe cast had very broad shoulders indeed. Kurt Egyiawan’s Angelo was a precise, measured mask of a man who seemed almost unable to believe that he was guilty as he asked Isabel to sin. Mariah Gale was an earnest, tortured Isabella, her hands (if slightly trapped in overlong sleeves) showing her anguish at the enormity of her choice of fates – but somehow also seeming an affectionate if exasperated older sister, trying to save her little brother from yet another scrape. Dominic Rowan was a charismatic Duke (and friar), if perhaps not as uneasy with public acclamation as the play calls for, but falling so earnestly in love with Isabella’s honour and fire, and seeming in the finale a veritable Duke ex machina come to resolve everyone’s problems in a gold suit. The desire to throw oneself into his arms and ask him to sort everything out was almost palpable, and deeply ironic given the character caused most of them!
It may not have been a perfect production, but it really caught my imagination. It is on until 17th October and what I really want is for all of you to go and see it, so we can have a proper chat about it.
* Which is the reason I totally gave up on false modesty
** Where we lay our scene. Or is that somewhere else?
*** Seriously, what is it with Shakespeare and friars? They always meddle, and rarely for the better…
**** No, I’m not going to tell you how. This is a blog, not Wikipedia.