‘Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’ Matthew 7: 1-2
From this and other biblical quotes comes the title and theme of Shakespeare’s play, which was first performed at the court of James 1st on the 26th December 1604.
‘Dealing with hypocrisy in government, the abuse of power and the silencing of women, Measure for Measure is an irresistible choice for a modern-dress production. It has the power, four hundred years on, to genuinely startle us with its relevance.’ Liz Sharman, Director.
I confess to having been quite daunted at the prospect of reviewing a Shakespeare play. I’m all for a long word but there really are rather a lot of them all together and sometimes it’s hard to keep up. In addition to that the parallels with the society of today are many and various and almost too glaringly obvious to mention.
‘Political chicanery. Abuse of position. Misogyny. Lying when in office. Sexual impropriety. Leaders breaking their own rules. No – it’s not Westminster!’ Ian Diddams (Pompey).
I went on Monday, which was the first night of the run. As mentioned above, the cast wore modern dress (with a seventies feel). The stage was painted black and bare; the absence of clutter and decoration on the stage leaving the mind free to concentrate on and relish the richness of the language. With the odd prop and sprinkling of light of different shapes and hues to indicate changes of scene, and music and sound used sparingly to the same end; a little mediaeval here, a bit of classical there, a bit of rock, tolling bells, and birdsong; a sombre atmosphere was created that entirely fitted the subject material.
Duke Vincentio leaves Vienna in the hands of his deputy Angelo, and disguises himself as a monk to observe how Angelo enforces the laws that he himself has let slide over the years, saying ‘hence shall we see, if power change purpose, what our seemers be’. Angelo immediately cracks down and brings back some ancient laws, particularly in relation to brothels and sexual behaviours, and sentences Claudio, the brother of the virtuous aspiring nun Isabella, to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock. When Isabella finds out that Claudio is to die she pleads with Angelo, who is suddenly overpowered with feelings of lust and love and proposes that she save her brother’s life by letting him have his wicked way with her.
It all gets a bit dark at this point and there is a rather disturbing scene in which Angelo tries to dominate Isabella by pulling her hair covering off. ‘To whom should I complain?’ asks Isabella afterwards.
Perhaps it is possible to watch Measure for Measure without being reminded of the murder of Sarah Everard and the policing of subsequent demonstrations, the current situation of women in Iran, and the recent revelations about the low rate of rape convictions in the UK and misogyny within the Met, but I didn’t manage it.
This scene was particularly well acted by Simon Carter as the dour and unforgiving Angelo, and Eleanor Smith in her Wharf debut as the innocent Isabella. Other scenes in which these two excelled in their passionate delivery were the scene in which Angelo is surprised by the suddenness and depth of his feelings, and the scene where Isabella gives Claudio, played by the always watchable Oli Beech, a piece of her mind for suggesting that his life might be worth more than her virtue.
As well as much morality to mull on there is many a mirthful moment in Measure for Measure, mostly delivered by the ebullient Ian Diddams as Pompey Bum the Bawd (resplendent in a gold shirt familiar to his fans) and the magnificent Lesley Scholes as Mistress Overdone, both of whom were made for such roles, and the rather strange Barnadine, who was covered with so much hair I couldn’t tell who played him! I also enjoyed Paul Snook as the crafty Lucio’s wit and word play, and Tor Burt’s gentle delivery of Mariana’s lines. Interesting and thought-provoking characters were Duke Vincentio (described as ‘the old fantastical duke of dark corners’ by Lucio), played in enigmatic and conspiratorial fashion by Pete Wallis, and the Provost, Jessica Bone, who seemed to be the only straightforward and truly merciful representative of the law in the play.
It’s not my place to criticise Shakespeare but at one point someone sleeps with someone pretending to be someone else and because it is dark nobody knows that they are sleeping with the wrong person (the bed trick) and also someone’s head is cut off but it’s not the head of the actual person it’s supposed to be but because they are dead nobody notices (the head trick) and I find both those things completely unlikely but I guess that’s poetic licence for you.
In the end everyone, with perhaps but not necessarily the exception of Isabella, has been taught a lesson about justice and how we shouldn’t be removing specks from each other’s eyes before getting out the planks from our own.
What of Duke Vincentio though? Was he lazy, sneaky, incredibly wise, or all of the above? Because in the end it seemed that he might be just as capable of riding roughshod over a woman’s wishes to satisfy his own desires as anyone else was. Perhaps no-one is all of anything, and Shakespeare leaves us to make up our own minds about him and his final question to Isabella unanswered.
The prose and poetry in the play is glorious, and so much easier to understand in performance than on the page. There are so many chuckleworthy turns of phrase – ‘groping for trouts in a peculiar river’ being one of my favourites – and philosophical and potentially dangerous questions to stimulate and confuse the mind, such as ‘They say, best men are moulded out of faults’, and ‘Might there not be a charity in sin…’.
There have been many words written about Shakespeare and his meanings and motivations over the years, but whatever his intent he has left us in Measure for Measure a play that begs huge moral questions, acknowledges everyone’s fallibility and humanity, and gives you a good laugh to boot.
The Wharf’s production on the first night wasn’t perfect. There were a few lines forgotten for a moment, and it took a while to warm up, but all in all it was very well done by an experienced cast and incredibly engaging. The theatre wasn’t packed but it will be by the end of its run, and I wasn’t the only person to have felt privileged and thrilled to enjoy a bit of Shakespeare in our beautiful theatre.
I asked the people in the row in front of me for a few, well three to be exact, words to describe their experience. ‘Jolly good evening!’ and ‘Thoroughly enjoyed it!’ they said, and on the way out I heard a lady say to her friend with some surprise that she had understood it all.
One has to wonder what the relatively new King James 1st would have thought of being presented with such a stark message about government and morality.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until 1660 that women were even allowed to be on the stage at all, and that all the women’s parts in the original play would have been played by men.
If you get the chance to see Shakespeare at The Wharf this week or ever in the future, give it a go; you’ll be hugely entertained and supporting quality theatre in Devizes by doing so.
And if you’re less than familiar with the plot of the play or Shakespeare generally there’s no crime in having a quick Google. No-one needs to know. Not that I did or anything…
© Gail Foster 29th March 2023
Images of Pete Wallis as Duke Vincentio and Eleanor Smith as Isabella by Gail Foster