Saw the Globe’s production of Measure for Measure (inside the candlelit Playhouse) last night. My favourite Shakespeare play, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this.
This is the first production I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot) that plays it as an outright comedy. M4M’s long been listed as a comedy, which roughly means “it doesn’t end with a load of deaths,” but I really wouldn’t have described it as an actual comedy. On the plus side, all the side plots, essentially all the non-Angelo/Isabella scenes, are remarkably clear and vastly entertaining. I’ve seen productions where those scenes are marginalised and treated almost as something to get out of the way so we can get back to the A plot. In this production you’d almost think this is a play about a brothel owner and a pimp, with a side plot about a nun. Not sure if the frontal male nudity was necessary but I’ll take it. On the minus side, Isabella’s plot is so horrific, playing the entire thing as a broad comedy sort of doesn’t work, especially when trying to squeeze laughs out of Isabella’s scenes themselves. In a way it’s almost like two plays mashed together.
Mariah Gale was superb as Isabella. She is utterly innocent, utterly naïve, yet also has a real religious zealotry to her. Her first scene didn’t really gel for me, due to the difference in the two separate parts of the play. Brendan O’Hea plays Lucio in such a comedic way (saying the lines in a very offhand, naturalistic, conversational way), it jarred a little bit with Gale’s more formal and traditional line delivery. She really starts to shine from her first scene with Angelo, and only gets better as her rage increases.
A few months ago I did R&D on Measure for Measure with Joe Hill-Gibbins as prep for his production at the Young Vic, and we had a lot of discussions over how naïve Isabella really is. Clearly she is an innocent, but is she really that naïve? Or is she more knowing? How much does she understand about what Angelo is trying to offer, and when does she start to understand it? We don’t know how old she is, but she appears to be an adult and is only now entering a convent; she hasn’t grown up in a convent, away from the world. We came to the conclusion there is textual support for her being more knowing and savvy, and (while still being an innocent) trying to play Angelo a little bit. Maybe even enjoying their sparring at times. I’ve read a lot of stuff on the idea of Isabella and Angelo as mirrors. Isabella’s bombshell moment is when she busts out with, “I’ll bribe you.” Pin-drop. “Ohhh, I didn’t mean in an illicit way, I’ll bribe you with prayers!” It’s a provocative statement. Her lines immediately after Angelo propositions her use a lot of sexual imagery; the idea of her naked and being whipped, blood “like rubies” on her back; a bed. What is she doing? Is she aware of what she’s doing?
One thing I kept thinking last night was how incredibly modern the play is. Because essentially it’s about a woman who outs a sexual predator and is not believed. That’s something with an incredibly modern resonance. Just this month, Chrissie Hynde made headlines by claiming women are sometimes responsible for being raped; just days ago Loose Women causes scandal from having (I can’t believe this) a public vote asking whether rape victims are ever to blame. Every time there’s a high profile sexual assault case, the same questions are thrown at the woman. So Angelo trying to rape someone and flat out saying, “Tell whoever you want, no one will believe you” is still hugely relevant. When Isabella does tell, no one believes her. Although I think M4M is a very feminist play in a lot of ways, it says something about how deeply patriarchal that the only reason justice prevails at all is because one man believes her. It’s to the Duke’s credit that he does instantly and entirely believe Isabella when she says Angelo tried to force her into sex (especially as it really is ‘his word against hers’) but the fact he’s in love with her casts doubt on his motivations for doing so. If Isabella hadn’t been pretty, would the Duke have believed her? If Isabella hadn’t been pretty, would Angelo have tried to rape her? It always comes down to putting responsibility on the woman.