In the same way that one cannot visit the Shaw Festival without seeing a Shaw play, it would be sacrilegious to visit the Stratford Shakespeare Festival without seeing something by the Bard. Some years we see more than one but, on this trip, our only Shakespeare is Measure For Measure.
M4M is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. The protagonist must confront some dilemma that speaks to a broader social problem. Also, it is difficult to categorize the play itself as either a “comedy” or a “tragedy”. It is a later play, written about 1603, and while it ends with weddings and not murders & suicides the tone of the play is not light-hearted.
I try not to miss M4M when it is on offer at the Festival because the productions are always a little outside-the-box. In the previous production a few years ago the theater was peopled with bawds before the show who interacted with the audience before the performance. This year’s production is slightly less free-wheeling but has a quirkiness that makes it thoroughly enjoyable.
The storyline is complex and there are many characters. In the central plot-line, the liberal Duke Vincentio enjoys going out among his people in disguise. To allow himself greater freedom to do this, he transfers his power and authority, temporarily, to his trusted subordinate Angelo. Angelo, a stickler for the letter-of-the-law, sentences Claudio to death for lechery. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, a novice in a convent preparing to take her vows as a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo says he will spare Claudio’s life if Isabella will sacrifice her virginity to him. Horrified, she refuses. Eventually the incognito Duke contrives a plot to set everything right and all is revealed.
The play is set in Vienna but all the characters have Italian names. In Shakespeare’s time, the English Reformation, Italy, and the implied Catholicism associated with it, added a sinister dimension to the story. In this case, there are nuns and priests, both real and pretended.
This production seems to relish ambiguity. A scene added at the beginning puts a spin on the Duke’s anonymous excursions that colors his subsequent relationship with Isabella. It is an interesting take on his character that I’d not seen before.
Angelo, often portrayed as a two-dimensional villain, has a more nuanced psychology; more Javert than Scarpia. This didn’t actually work for me but it was an interesting interpretation.
In the end, everyone gets married but, with one exception, it is clear these marriages are made nowhere near heaven and ‘happily ever after’ is probably not on the horizon.