Saturday, August 22, 2009

Theatre: Measure for Measure

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, 21/8/2009

And we finally got to catch a Cambridge Shakespeare Festival production this year, a week before the thing wound down. In Robinson College Gardens, too, which we hadn't seen properly before, and which turn out to be very nice for this sort of thing. And the weather, we earlier in the day, turned nice for the evening, if a little cool by the end...

Okay, the play. One of Shakespeare's more problematic numbers, of course, being technically a comedy but really not funny - this production did its best with the bawdy house inhabitants and other minor parts, but even that wound up being more about the flaws in humanity than about actual humour. The play ends in marriage or marriages, yes, but these are marriages as punishment. (Mind you, I do wonder if the thing worked for Elizabethan English audiences as a huge joke about Catholicism and Catholics, with their wacky un-English obsessions with sin and virginity and confession and absolution and all that. Is the Duke even a Catholic god, or at least a symbol of the Catholic church, all manipulative power and arbitrary forgiveness when it suits him?) It's a tough play to produce by Shakespeare's standards, but interesting.

I guess that the normal response these days is to see it as a story about tyranny and power, with the Duke as an arbitrary manipulator and his brother as a Puritan tyrant. This production, though, took a different line, treating the Duke as a hell of a lot less clever than he thought he was; he fumbled around attempting unsuccessful jokes and unwise tests of other people's attitudes, causing widespread unnecessary pain and really not understanding why Isabella gave him such a dirty look at the end when he tried to propose marriage to her. Angelo, meanwhile, just lacked self-knowledge, hurtling into his appalling behaviour because he didn't have a clue how people worked. Let's face it, this is a horrifically dysfunctional sort of family to have running your country on any terms; in this version, they were downright clueless. Vienna, one felt, was in as much trouble in the long term as in the short.

Technically, this was a punchy presentation, coming it at around two hours including an interval, and even losing one or two of Lucio's sharper lines that often grab the audience's sympathy. This Lucio was shaved bald and wearing white face-paint that made him look part clown, part syphilis victim, and part goblin; definitely one of the bawdy house crew, not a fallible but morally honest everyman. The quasi-comic bawdy house business also involved a leather-aproned, bare-buttocked executioner (just a small part on a cold evening, boom boom), a lot of shouting, and some weird free jazz noises from offstage that didn't help the clarity of the performance. Still, it was Shakespeare on a summer evening, as the shadows drew in and things became colder; Measure for Measure had the way of things all too well.

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