CAST 2013: Measure for Measure

Tue 8th – Sat 12th October 2013

reviews

Hannah Greenstreet

at 18:39 on 11th Oct 2013

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I can only describe Cambridge American Stage Tour’s version of Measure for Measure as a mash-up of Shakespeare and the well-loved Cambridge drag show, Denim. Although this combination sometimes yields some inspiring insights, I remain ambivalent about this high-concept production.

Measure for Measure is a play of opposites, paradoxes and moral dilemmas. Under the direction of Charlie Parham, Vienna’s world of brothels and nightclubs is very much a double of the world of law courts and nunneries. This interpretation is pushed further by some thoughtful multi-roling: Emma Hall plays both Escalus, the dispenser of justice and deputy of the Duke and Angelo, and Juliet, Claudio’s pregnant fiancée; Max Upton plays both the cold, uptight Angelo, gradually corrupted by lust, and cross-dresses outrageously as the brothel-manager Mistress Overdone. (Indeed, Upton plays both parts so consummately that I thought different people played them before I checked the programme.)

It is clear that the company have made the most of their numerous performances across America and the UK preceding their home run in Cambridge; the performers fully inhabit their characters and bring out delightful nuances of characterisation in a production that is meticulously directed. Sarah Livingstone was particularly memorable as the Provost, although quite a small role, taking advantage of Angelo’s absence from the room to sit behind his desk and put her feet up, before starting up guiltily to gruffly reassert her professionalism. Hugh Wyld also stands out as the urbane Lucio, replete with picnic blanket, cocktail shaker, and shocking dyed red hair. However, at times the production can feel over-rehearsed. There is a hyperbolic staginess to some of the comic characters, which can detract from the subtleties of the play.

The simple set of semi-opaque screens on castors is used effectively, particularly in the opening image of the pregnant Juliet being tortured by soldiers behind the screens to suggest a sinister underbelly to the revelry in Vienna. The opening tableau opens the negotiation between the serious and comic worlds of the play; a good balance between these worlds is often, but not always, struck.

The final scene of the play, notoriously problematic as a ‘comic’ ending, is pitched perfectly, managing to be at once awkward to the point of hilarity, and tragic, with the suggestion that Juliet died in childbirth. However, the final scene also left me frustrated for what the preceding two and a half hours might have been. Parham’s production of this challenging work is very slick but Measure for Measure is a play that needs some slightly rougher edges.

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Theodora Hawlin

at 13:13 on 16th Oct 2013

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Measure for Measure is a notoriously tricky play to perform. Ambiguities abound and yet this production negotiates potential pitfalls... while donning fishnets and high heels. The play begins with a grand focus on spectacle, cameras flash, bodies swarm across the stage, men dance in drag. The decadence of this initial encounter is somewhat overwhelming, but everything soon slots into place as we are made to switch between the decadence and unruliness of the city with the apparent order and calm that resides within the rooms of the elite.

The staging of the play is a standalone star, the impeccable and cunning use of three apparently sparse frames of gauze fabric artfully manoeuvred throughout to create every scene and scenario for the taking, from the sombre walls of a nunnery, to electronic LED adorned prison doors to a contemporary elevator with tinny music to top it off. Each character moves seamlessly between these frames, creating layers within scenes and divisive framings for attention.

The use of music throughout is also a pleasant surprise, Parham making good use of the vocals of Powell and Hall to integrate song into the play in both expected and unexpected moments. The dynamic is a pleasing one contrasting to the loud overhead speakers with acoustic melodies, comically undercut when sound is brought into the scene, a tape recorder switched off, a laptop closed; the boundaries between the world of stage and staging continually being tested.

This fluidity within the staging is mimicked in the fluidity of the actors themselves. Emma Powell steals the stage and impresses with her transformations, showing an incredible variety from Pompey to the wronged Mariana. Hugh Wyld as the cigarette toting Lucio was perfection, from the first waggle of his netted top and velvet jacket to the final closing of his parasol. Even an apparently simple role like that of the provost is energised with new verve by Sarah Livingstone who shines every second on stage. Parham’s direction sees lines renovated with comic twists, artfully timed deliveries creating meaningful new angels on traditional speeches. A favourite is the staging of the jail ‘phone call’ between Claudio (Guy Woolf) and Lucio after Claudio’s arrest. The deeply wrought tragic-comic aspects of the play are brought out in shining colours.

But what sealed the deal for me in this production was its end. Labelled ‘problem play’ it is unsurprising that the ending of Measure for Measure poses, well, a problem. Critics and directors alike have struggled to fathom the real result of the play at all, and most is up for interpretation, does Isabella mimic the Duke’s affection? Are they married at the end or no? Are they happy? This production manages to somehow career into the final scene with grace, presenting both a sweetness to the Duke’s proclaimed affection for Isabella while highlighting a subtle sinister edge as the shutter for the final camera clicks on a scene in which every character seems horridly alone.

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