Shakespeare in good hands: rich, dignified, dark, and bubbling with bawdy clowning
This is a top-level production of a great play, but William Shakespeare’s dark, complex, late comedies always present some problems to make even their best presentations slightly unsatisfying.
The role of Angelo is the main stumbling block in Measure for Measure because he is presented as a wholly virtuous man—often as a tiresome prig—who becomes tempted by the beautiful Isabella, who is about to become a nun. artes fine arts magazine
Isabella has come to plead for her brother, Claudio’s life; Claudio has been condemned to death for sexual congress with his beloved Juliet, impregnating her before marriage. They planned to marry, and still do, but held off because their dowry was delayed in arriving by ship. But Angelo’s new moral law makes Claudio a criminal. So the virtuous Isabella is made vulnerable enough to tempt Angelo to become a viciously predatory lecher (and potential murderer). He will execute her brother if she does not give up her virginity to him.
But by the end of this comedy Angelo must be reformed and resurrected from venal, menacing tyrant to repentant ex-sinner for a happy finale. Even that astounding actor, John Cazale, the first Angelo I ever saw (opposite Meryl Streep as Isabella) couldn’t quite make Angelo’s transitions entirely plausible.
The supposedly all-wise Duke Vincentio, who takes leave of his city and orders Angelo to maintain order and morality in his absence, sets up this dilemma. The Duke actually stays on, in disguise, and observes and aids those who appear to be victimized. But he has apparently been a very weak ruler, permitting his city (a mostly mythical Vienna) to become so corrupt that his temporary abandonment of command has to rely on Angelo to establish a moral order. When the Duke observes Angelo’s failure and surreptitiously takes steps to correct matters, he seems to be playing with people rather callously. He permits Isabella to believe that her brother was killed, and he rebukes Angelo’s former fiancee who tries to restore Angelo’s love for her, and withholds the truth for a dramatic finale. Such manipulation of desperate people also seems to be a mere plot device. And it’s less-than-admirable behavior, at that.
Stratford’s great chameleon, Geraint Wyn Davies, almost entirely removes such quibbles, however, in a wholly appealing, commanding performance as the Duke, who, belatedly or not, is trustworthy to make things right. His disguise as a friar includes a different look and speaking voice and accent, and a separate, winning characterization. So, unless we take time to distance ourselves and question his schemes, we end delighted with him as the good guy who wins out. Perhaps later we might reflect on his questionable ability to rule thereafter, and wonder at his sudden happy-ending proposal of marriage to Isabella (who doesn’t answer it and has never wanted to marry).
Director Martha Henry, one of Canada’s great actresses, director of Stratford’s acclaimed school of classical theater training, and veteran director of Shakespeare, helms a rich, dignified, dark, production which nonetheless bubbles up with the bawdy clowning demanded by Measure for Measure’s low-comedy joking. Choosing an ominous post-World War II Vienna setting which designer John Pennoyer makes both dangerous and licentious looking, Henry doesn’t allow the frippery of the comic interludes to overly brighten the play’s nasty tone.
But we certainly enjoy Patricia Collins’ wonderful aging bawd, Mistress Overdone, and her clownish servant Pompey (Randy Hughson). And we can savor the stupidity of Brian Tree’s hilariously deliberate constable Elbow. Usually, the lying pretender Lucio, who badmouths the Duke to the Friar, not knowing that he is the Duke in disguise, seems a tedious device to me. But as intensely as Stephen Ouimette enters into Lucio’s pretense, he is not only really funny but involving: we truly want to see Lucio’s comeuppance. So those four gifted actors manage an almost separate comedy of their own.
The cast looks to be hand-picked with Peter Hutt’s distinguished, wise Escalus and Stephen Russell’s stalwart Provost lending dignity and believability. And Ruby Joy’s Juliet and Sarah Afful’s Marianna give character and empathy to the two underwritten female roles of Claudio’s betrothed and Angelo’s former betrothed.
Newcomer Christopher Prentice is rather touching as Claudio. And Robert Persechini is so large, powerful looking, and intense that he actually made me believe in the crazy condemned prisoner Barnardine. That is, by the way, another oddity of this plot that raises questions about how the Duke maintains law and order: can a man be condemned to death and willing to die, but no one is able to execute him because he says he isn’t yet ready?
A relative newcomer to Stratford – but obviously uncommonly gifted from her first appearance there two years ago, Carman Grant is a lovely Isabella and gives an unusually layered and involving performance in the role. The always fascinating and intriguing actor Tom Rooney makes Angelo an odd study in almost neurotic hypocrisy, rapidly shifting from anguished confusion to ice cold predator. In the difficult shift at the end, he seems almost numbed. As noted, Wyn Davies is, as always, pretty much ideal as the Duke. And I have to admit to a personal bias in favor of the really stunning contribution made here by lighting designer, Steven Hawkins.
By Herbert M. Simpson, Contributing Writer
Cast: Measure for Measure
Sarah Afful, Nigel Bennett, Patricia Collins, Carmen Grant, Brad Hodder, Randy Hughson, Peter Hutt, Ruby Joy, Josue Laboucane, Ian Lake, Stephen Ouimette, Robert Persichini, Christopher Prentice, Stephen Russell, E. B. Smith, Dorcas Sowunmi, Brian Tree, Dylan Trowbridge, Geraint Wyn Davies.
Director: Martha Henry
Set and Costumes: John Pennoyer
Lighting: Steven Hawkins
Music/Sound: Todd Charlton
Fight Director: John Stead
Total Rating: ****
Ends: September 21, 2013
Stratford Festival – Tom Patterson Theater
111 Lakeside Drive
Stratford, Ontario, Canada