Measure for Measure, a co-production
of Theatre de Complicite and the National Theatre Company at the Olivier Theatre,
Royal National Theatre, London, 2004.
Nicol, David. "Review
of Measure for Measure, a co-production of Theatre de Complicite and
the National Theatre Company at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre,
London, 2004". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September,
2004) 13.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/revnicol.html>.
Directed by Simon McBurney. Duke Vincentio: David Troughton.
Angelo: Paul Rhys. Isabella: Naomi Frederick. Claudio: Ben Meyjes. Lucio:
Toby Jones. Escalus: Mike Grady. Mariana: Meredith MacNeill. Juliet: Vinette
Robinson. Provost: Angus Wright. Mistress Overdone: Tamzin Griffin. Pompey:
Richard Katz. Elbow: Kostas Philippoglou. Froth/Abhorson: Clive Mendus. Barnardine:
Johannes Flaschberger. Friar Peter/Justice: Steven Crossley. Francisca: Cait
Davis. Servant to Angelo: Rhydian Jones. Boy: Jamie R. Bradley.
There are many challenges involved in performing Measure
for Measure in a theatrical culture that values consistency and coherence,
such as the villain who disappears for half the play and the abrupt shifts
from psychological introspection to fairytale logic. However, one of the
biggest problems may be the characterization of the Duke. Actors cast in
the role must fight with the text to find a psychological throughline that
answers the many questions the play leaves open: why does the Duke absent
himself? What motivates his actions when disguised as Friar Lodowick? And
in what ways are his moral values different to those professed by Angelo?
There have been many engaging attempts at finding such a throughline. However,
the most remarkable aspect of Simon McBurney's Theatre de Complicite
production at the National Theatre was that, instead of trying to 'solve'
the Duke's character, David Troughton's performance continuously highlighted
the ways in which the play deliberately presents the Duke as an enigma.
Rather than treat this mysteriousness as a problem, McBurney made it into
the production's organizing structure, building to a final revelation in
a breathtaking flourish at the very end of the play.
The key to McBurney's interpretation was that the Duke
was in disguise from the very beginning of the play. Clearly unwilling to
stage himself to the public's eyes, Troughton's Duke was shrouded in a trenchcoat
and dark glasses as he left Vienna by helicopter. His insecurity was understandable,
as the public's eyes were very much evidence: video monitors were used on
the stage throughout, with key speeches appearing on TV like press conferences
or show trial footage. Escaping from this constant display, the Duke was
shrouded in mystery even as the story began.
When he returned, shrouded this time in a black cowl that
hid his eyes, the production continued to stress not only the Duke's mystery,
but also Shakespeare's deliberate emphasis on that mystery. One of the key
sequences became Lucio's chat with 'Friar Lodowick' about the old Duke's
moral character, in which Lucio claims the Duke was a libertine who "would
mouth with a beggar though she smelt brown bread and garlic" (3.1.440-1).
There are various ways an actor might colour the Duke's response: outrage,
hurt, shame. Here, Troughton offered no vocal colouring at all to the lines;
his shrouded, emotionless responses suggested, but did not confirm, the
possibility that Lucio might well be telling the truth.
Troughton's performance was thus not a psychological
one, as he emphasized the gaps in our knowledge of the Duke. In contrast,
Paul Rhys's performance as Angelo was extremely psychologized, building
on the text's complex, self-interrogatory soliloquies to produce a monster
of self-loathing even more frightening because he hated himself so much.
Rhys's Angelo was apparently chosen by the Duke to be his successor because
he was telegenic, as the banks of TV monitors eagerly displayed his stern
features. Yet he was, in private, a gangly, awkward creature, grotesquely
disturbed by his own body ("What's this?" he delivered to his
erection), who took obscene pleasure in unraveling his desires to Isabella,
finally placing her hand inside his trousers.
Rhys's Angelo was easy to loath, but Troughton's enigmatic
portrayal of the Duke prevented the production from being a simple battle
between good and evil. Indeed, the production's attitude toward sexuality
and Angelo's war on it was not clear-cut. Unlike some recent productions,
notably Michael Boyd's at the RSC in 1998, in which the Viennese lowlife
have been sanctified as icons of sexual liberation, McBurney's depicted
the sleaze of Vienna as uniformly unappealing. Sex was a grubby, dirty operation
performed between dead-eyed whores and their heartless clients. Richard
Katz's Pompey was an especially memorable creation, an articulate Cockney
in a cheap leather trenchcoat who had an entirely businesslike attitude
to his trade, while Clive Mendus's Froth was a beery lout, disturbingly
casual about his misdemeanors with Elbow's wife. Furthermore, Claudio was
remarkably unsympathetic, played by Ben Meyjes as a sneering toff whose
response to Isabella's plea that he accept death was an eye-rolling "Oh,
Isabella" (as if to say, "Have you still not grown out
of that virtue hogwash?"). Only his powerful rendition of the death
speech, and some interpolated images of Julietta's horror at his 'death',
gave the character any redeeming qualities. Yet none of this made Angelo's
regime appear necessary. The prison was portrayed as a terrible place. McBurney
emphasized its horrors through an unpleasant slopping-out sequence; numerous
vicious beatings of the prisoners; and in the Guantanamo-style orange overalls
that allied Angelo with the hypocrisy of George W. Bush, whose image appeared
briefly on the video screens during Lucio's lines about a "sanctimonious
The result of all this was a doubly bleak Measure
for Measure unleavened by any hope that its world could change for the
better. Amid this bleakness, Naomi Frederick's Isabella stood out as a surprisingly
uncritical interpretation. Frederick played the character as very young,
making an interesting change from the more mature and forceful Isabellas
common of late. This made her meeting with Angelo, and especially the shocking
sequence in which he made her touch him, even more disturbing. As Angelo
slunk off, he left the devastated Isabella alone with her contaminated hand
stretched out beside her in a powerful image of pollution: so powerful that
even during her interview with her brother, it was easy to share her point
of view, and to see her inflexibility as a ray of hope, rather than as a
mere repression of the inevitable.
So what, exactly, was the purpose behind this incredibly
bleak production, in which it was difficult to sympathize with anything
other than the rigid chastity of Isabella? In the final act, it became clear
that its principal interest was to focus our attention on the Duke's potential
as saviour and then to question the nature of that salvation. Was the Duke
right to open the gates of Angelo's prison and release the denizens? It
was difficult to agree with his choice when Johannes Flaschberger's terrifying
Barnardine, portrayed as a bookish and quietly sinister serial killer, was
released and walked silently to his freedom, undoubtedly to commit some
new and hideous crime.
Furthermore, the production concluded with the revelation
that the greatest seemer was the Duke himself. When the Duke removed the
costume of Friar Lodowick at the end of the play, we did not see beneath
it the feeble old man that he had appeared as at the beginning of the play.
Instead, we saw a third Duke, a powerful figure with a commanding voice
in a black pinstripe suit. An even greater revelation was reserved for the
last lines. Once again, emphasis was placed on the text's deliberate mystery
about the Duke's character, as Troughton articulated clearly the Duke's
determination to show "What's yet behind, that's meet you all should
know" (5.1.542). What was 'behind'? With a dazzling theatrical pun,
McBurney gave his answer as a row of curtains behind the Duke lifted up
to reveal, at the back of the stage, a bed in what looked like a honeymoon
suite, bearing a rose on its pillow. The Duke stretched out his hand to
Isabella. With this devastating conclusion (to which the stunned Isabella
offered no response), McBurney suggested the insane, ridiculous, but at
that moment entirely believable possibility that all of the play's events
had been the Duke's Byzantine plot to get Isabella into his bed. It is a
mad interpretation, and one that doesn't stand up to five minute's thought
- and yet the moment of sheer horror that McBurney and Troughton generated
in that climax was worth a hundred more sensible readings.