My first encounter with a stage production of Measure for Measure came while I was travelling in Portugal in 2012. If you want to read about that production, you can read the post. The long story short was that I really enjoyed the Portuguese production, as it had a vitality and energy to it that made it compelling – especially since it was done in Portuguese, and I don’t speak the language.
In her Oxford University lecture series “Approaching Shakespeare,” Dr. Emma Smith refers to Measure for Measure as a “Problem” play, being a play that poses a moral problem that is explored through the course of the action. And M4M is just that – fraught with problems the characters must face. Does Claudio deserve to die? Is Angelo just? And one which is almost a contemporary no-brainer, but was in Shakespeare’s day a major conundrum – Should Isabella sleep with Angelo to save Claudio’s life? None of these questions are easily answered, morally, and the play seeks to explore these issues.
The play is, itself, a bit ridiculous. Why does the Duke “leave” and let Angelo take over? We see this idea of a noble walking among the commoners in other plays – Henry V, for example – but we’re not entirely sure why the Duke does here – it’s an entirely contrived construct. The extremity of Angelo’s punishment of Claudio’s “crime,” and the even more complicated and ridiculous means of resolution, require, in my estimation, some clever comedic acting.
Even the ending posts an interesting dilemma – how *should* Isabella react to the Duke’s proposal? One can only assume that, in Elizabethan times, it would be an honour and a privilege for any woman to marry a Duke, but it’s problematic in a modern context to think of this being a “reward.” In the Porto production, the ending was rather dark, with Isabella running off the stage away from the Duke; in Stratford, it was sort of left hanging there.
It’s a play where you sort of need to check your disbelief at the door and just go with it.
While I found the acting in Stratford’s production compelling, and the staging in the Tom Patterson Theatre rather interesting, I can’t say I loved the production. I found it too serious, too dark. Although it was classified in the First Folio as a comedy, it is so only in structure, to be sure. But again, because of the far-fetched nature of the play, I think it reads better the closer it is to a farce than a drama. This production’s setting – in war-time Vienna – made the tone ominous from the get-go, and the soundtrack, which was an industrial and atonal soundscape, made it weirder. I do have to say that I appreciated Stephen Ouimette’s performance as Lucio, which provided a bit of levity in an otherwise heavy play, and Geraint Wyn Davies as the Duke made the machinations plausible.
I liked it, but I don’t feel like I need to see it again.