Measure for Measure for Measure for Measure

It’s a big year for Shakespeare’s (and Middleton’s!) “problem play”. Cheek by Jowl brought their Russian-language production to London in the spring, Shakespeare’s Globe played their version during the summer, and the Young Vic’s production is currently in the final weeks of its run. I finally got the chance to see the Young Vic production today.

My immediate response to director Joe Hill-Gibbins’ latest foray into the early modern is that it tries too hard to bash us over the head with things that the play does pretty well all on its own. A number of people on Twitter have commented on the “Alanis moment”, for example: Cath Whitefield’s Mariana introduces herself to the audience by singing and dancing along to the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, which replaces the song written into the play’s text. The “punk-light” aesthetic of Mariana’s oversized coat, heavy eyeliner, pixie haircut and tattered wedding dress–along with the song itself–sit uneasily against the use of “punk” to mean “prostitute” elsewhere in the play. I couldn’t tell whether this juxtaposition was intentional or not. There appeared to be no other reason for the choice of song, however, apart from the line ‘It’s not fair / To deny me / Of the cross I bear’, at which point Whitefield turned face-on to the audience and spread her arms to make the shape of a cross. Such a gesture seemed a rather heavy-handed way to remind the audience that Christianity is a powerful force in Shakespeare’s Vienna.

Indeed, the entire production bounced back and forth between extremes: images of sexual indulgence, personified especially in a sea of blow-up dolls, butted up against images of oddly historicised religious devotion, manifest in projections of Renaissance religious paintings and recordings of sixteenth-century sacred music. In one sense, this is typical of Hill-Gibbins’ developing style as a director of early modern drama: he tends to fixate on a disconnect or a juxtaposition that he perceives in a play’s text and test its boundaries in performance. In The Changeling, it was the relationship between the two plots; in Edward II it was the tension between private and public life; in Measure, it seems to be soul versus body.

To a certain extent, making a Measure about the tensions between sacred and secular in the text makes sense, and offers a tempting link between Shakespeare’s world and our own. But I would suggest that it’s hardly the most interesting thing to make the play about, especially since the play itself does such a good job of highlighting that problem already. The back-and-forth between the sinners and the righteous, and the transgressions and ethical quandaries that occur within that framework, do not require ham-fisted directorial intervention in order to be clear to a modern audience.

What was less clear in Hill-Gibbins’ production was his use of live-streamed video footage. He’s been obsessed with off stage spaces since The Changeling, and in Edward II the use of video worked seamlessly with the through-lines of public versus private life, surveillance, and corrupt government. In Measure, however, the use of video feels rather arbitrary, even if it looks cool. Sometimes, it teeters on the edge of a “mockumentary” approach, where characters tell us, via the camera, what’s going on for them. Sometimes it does the surveillance thing it did in Edward II, showing us what’s happening behind the upstage wall. There’s a rather neat moment in which we see both sides of the door at once, with Lucio trying to enter the prison and the Duke (as Friar Lodowick) trying to keep him out. Sometimes it’s a Catholic confessional booth, with close-ups on a single actor’s face; Juliet is subjected to a kind of forced confession in front of the camera, for example. And sometime, it’s entirely unclear what the point is supposed to be: in Claudio’s first scene in prison, for example, he stood on stage, silently, with the camera shoved in his face and his face projected onto the back wall, whilst the Duke gave a long speech as the Friar. What?! Ivanno Jeremiah is handsome, sure, but why the close up on his face in this scene, especially since his face didn’t do all that much? The Young Vic’s main house is tiny compared to the National Theatre’s Olivier, where Edward II was staged, so there’s nothing the camera can show us—in terms of an actor’s performance—that we can’t see just by being in the room. In the end, it seemed that the camera work was simply an aesthetic choice rather than an interpretive one.

Still, the production made me think. The heavy emphasis on religion made the play’s sticky moments all the stickier. Angelo assaults Isabella with a Bible in his hands—and yet she’s about to take her vows as a nun, and we’re supposed to be on her side, so we can’t just condemn religion. There were also some beautifully performed moments: Isabella’s plea for Angelo’s life in the final scene was beautifully done, and Romola Garai portrayed the struggle of that moment with clarity and sincerity. Sarah Malin, as Escalus, gave a strong performance throughout, and was genuinely moving in her discovery that she had delivered the warrant for Claudio’s head.

What’s perhaps most troubling about this production—and, indeed, about all three big Measures this season—is that it made no attempt to resolve some of the play’s problems for a modern audience. What do we make of Mariana, for example, who has been deeply, deeply wronged by Angelo and yet still desires him as a husband—indeed, is willing to be pimped out to him at a moment’s notice? What about the games that the Duke plays towards the end, when he decides to keep Isabella ‘in ignorance’ of her brother’s preservation so that he can orchestrate his “big reveal”? What about Juliet, who “repents” for the “sin” of being in love and bearing a child? What about the play’s prostitutes, who are represented at the Young Vic by actual inanimate objects?

I’m not sure it’s possible to do Measure for Measure in the twenty-first century without falling into one of the play’s many, many traps. But I’d love to see a production that attempts to confront the play’s problems. For me, none of the three staged this year managed to do that.