Ivanno Jeremiah & Zubin Varla in Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison.
The Nineteenth Century essayist, poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise of Shakespeare. He once said of The Bard;
‘Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place.’
I was reminded of Coleridge’s acclaim as I sat watching The Young Vic’s production of Measure for Measure last week. Even as Coleridge battled crippling opium addiction and debilitating episodes of self-doubt in life, he found joy and freedom in the world created by Shakespeare. He discovered a liberty from his own weak will, and a license to suspend his disbelief in order that he whole-heartedly enter into the dramatic world of the play unfolding before him. He said that incredible or fanciful work would break this spell and bring the ludic performance crashing down and that one must be able to give themselves over completely to the drama. And the writer he identified as the illusionist dramatist par excellence and most suited to this task was, of course, Shakespeare.
There were moments between Angelo and Isabella, Claudio and Isabella, The Duke Vincentio and Pompey et al, when discussions centred on the nature of human virtue, clemency and spiritual and corporal corruption, at such times it was as if I was watching and hearing a divine puppeteer interweaving all the thoughts and feelings of humanity, mixing the conflict between self-preservation and empathy, expounding the collision of desire and morality and underpinning all with a firm and sure depth psychology. Watching Shakespeare at these moments is a special kind of poetry, one that may grant the audience access to an exquisite divinity beyond their normal everyday human experience.
Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Measure for Measure is a rampant, cut-down, boisterous affair. The play moves along at a blazing comic pace, but as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, it never moves too far from the darkness at its centre. Vienna is a city overflowing with brothels, pimps and scoundrels. The Duke Vincentio tells his advisors he’s leaving the city and then disguises himself as a friar and stays within the city walls. He leaves Angelo in charge, an unbending guardian of morality who instantly closes all the city’s brothels and sentences Claudio to death for the act of fornication with Juliet, whom he has made pregnant. Isabella learns of her brother Claudio’s punishment and goes to Angelo to beg for clemency. During the course of their meeting the morally incorruptible Angelo begins to feel lust and desire for Isabella and tells her he will spare Claudio’s life if she should yield to him her virginity. Isabella then goes to see Claudio, tells him of Angelo’s advances and expects that he will face death with dignity. Claudio begs his sister to give herself up to Angelo to save his life, and she refuses as she doesn’t want to sacrifice her immortality, or Claudio’s in the afterlife.
Hill-Gibbins’ and Miriam Buether’s radical exuberant production and design gives us swirling images of blow-up dolls representing the vice and corruption of Vienna, a Kardashian-style sex-tape of Claudio and Juliet, and dazzling camerawork, backgrounded behind closed doors, to show us the dark, ever existing underbelly of a city crawling with debasement and debauchery behind its moral veneer. I’m a fan of this seemingly, de rigour use of camerawork, as it compellingly captures and enhances human emotion, intensity and intimacy. The cast is uniformly strong, with Paul Ready’s cloying, convincing, bureaucratic Angelo and Tom Edden’s turn as an evasive New York Jewish gangster-pimp Pompey, complete with spectacles, suit and baseball cap, my personal favourites.
This thoroughly enjoyable and vivacious production ends with a startling image of The Duke, played by Zubin Varla, not only telling Isabella of his intentions to marry her, but lining up the entire cast of the play in couples, in a desperately awkward and dreadful tableau. This creates a striking image, although the characters may be saved from hell, are they any better off in the strange, mixed-up relationships and marriages they end up in, where they may succeed or fail, and advance through life in an utterly muddled human procession?
My initial reaction to Angelo’s lack of tolerance for the business of prostitution and sex was to think how antiquated that attitude has become in the modern world. Sitting in a diverse cosmopolitan audience in a multicultural London, it’s easy to forget the patrician attitudes and intolerance that exist in other cities and regions. However, the ingenious presence on stage of a couple of dozen male and female blow-up dolls at times piled-high, at others waded through by the cast, and then thrown in discarded fashion upstage, started to put me in mind of a slaughter, the Holocaust perhaps? But then I settled on the fanatical nature of those purporting to represent Islam and calling themselves Islamic State. Intolerance to human desire isn’t antiquated or out-dated, it is a very real and evil threat. The next night that threat would be foregrounded once again in the shocking pictures and stories pushed in a vile centrifuge from the blood-soaked streets of Paris. Intolerance of people trying to live free lives, people in bars and cafes, enjoying rock concerts, massacred by those, identified over four hundred years ago by Shakespeare, who deign to impose their dogmatic views and calcified opinions on innocent citizens. Therefore, once again Shakespeare proves his genius. This thoroughly pagan Elizabethan playwright always manages to remain relevant and timeless in all ages, and how does he manage this? Because, as Coleridge had it, he knew the minutest and most intimate workings of the human mind. And no matter how much we may progress, technologically and scientifically, no matter how much we innovate and evolve, we are still Shakespeare’s humans; coiled and contradictory, floored and mistaken, emotional and desirous.
The Company of Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. Photo by Keith Pattison
By Bradley Russell for Urban Dandy