Measure for Measure: The RSCs Shakespearean Spectacle

By Morgan Rodway-WIng

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Naturally, having seen Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Measure for Measure at The Globe Theatre in 2015, seeds of doubt crept in prior to watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance at The Marlowe Theatre. I started to wonder whether the atmosphere and staging of The Globe could be matched by Canterbury’s own Marlowe Theatre. However, I can honestly say it was the far superior performance of the two and wildly outshone any other performance of Measure for Measure that I have seen.

Measure for Measure is a play about injustice, corruption and sexuality. After the Duke mysteriously leaves Vienna, Angelo is left to rule and bring justice himself. However, as the play evolves, the audience learn the Angelo’s intentions are far from just, as he is in fact the most corrupt character in the play. Having

condemned Claudio to die after getting Julietta pregnant before marriage, Angelo propositions Claudio’s sister, Isabella, and gives her the chance to save him. The play follows the unravelling of Angelo’s proposition and Isabella’s reaction to it.

This particular production was set in the 1900s as opposed to the 1600, modernising the play while keeping it at a distance from the Present Day. In doing so, it revolutionised Shakespeare’s play and gave it a whole new perspective. This was continued by the very simple, yet brilliant mirage-like staging, as a row of mirrors engulfed the stage and became a focal point for the entire performance. As the scenes changed and props moved around the stage, the mirrors remained in the same place, creating both physical and metaphorical reflections of both the characters and the audience members. Even more interestingly, the modernisation and reimagination of Measure for Measure was continued with the positioning of the orchestra, who were sat above the stage as opposed to below it. They became integrated with the characters and truly felt part of the performance.

Measure for Measure is known by scholars as a ‘Problem Play’ because it does not fulfil the criteria of either a tragedy, or a comedy, which often places a lot of uncertainty on it. However, the one certainty of this production was that the minor characters were absolutely hilarious. Pompey (David Ajao), Lucio (Joseph Arkley) and Barnadine (Graeme Brookes) stole the show and injected well-needed moments of humour into the performance at every given opportunity. Brookes also played Mistress Overdone, another character illuminated by wit, sarcasm and hilarity. The traditionalist in me was overjoyed to see a man playing a woman’s role, much like it would have been during Shakespeare’s actual performances, and the feminist in me was equally thrilled to see two key characters, Escalus and Provost, being played by women.

While Claire Price and Amanda Harris excelled in their roles as Escalus and Provost, it was the characterisation of Isabella that left me in awe. Director Gregory Doran and actress Lucy Phelps clearly worked in unison to create a version of Isabella who was not weak, helpless or desperate as she is so often portrayed. Instead, Isabella was strong, powerful and somewhat inspirational. Of course there were societal and contextual boundaries that prevented Isabella’s character from being considered a modern day feminist powerhouse, however, it was clear to see that they gave her as much power and autonomy as possible whilst remaining in keeping with the patriarchal context of the period setting.

Lucio states that ‘our doubts are traitors and makes us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt’ and all I can say is that I am ecstatic that the RSC dared to attempt such an exquisite piece of theatre because it has left a lasting impact on me and I know I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.

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