With Canada’s current political scandals running rampant at all levels of government, it’s—once again—instructive to see, hear and feel how Shakespeare manages to pillory, mock and ridicule those who purport to be our betters.
As telling and insightful as his wisdom, wit and text (Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall; Alack, when once our grace we have forgot/ Nothing goes right), Measure for Measure’s overabundance of “happy endings”—most definitely not of the massage parlour persuasion—seem as trumped up as the charge of fornication against a man whose only crime was not to marry the woman of his dreams (and he hers) in a timely manner.
Having been in the cast of Robin Phillips’ 1975 production, Martha Henry brought first-person experience of a high order to add to her considerable bag of tricks as, now, she in the director’s chair.
Keeping the action in largely Catholic Vienna but moving the time to 1949 provided an intriguing historical backdrop against which to weave together the storyline’s threads of seldom-enforced laws (notably “lechery” which, according to the all-powerful Duke Vincentio—Geraint Wyn Davies fires on nearly all cylinders, morphing between the, apparently, straight-laced ruler and disguised friar bent on surreptitiously observing the actions of his surrogates) has led to the moral decay (and not a few bastard children) of his doting subjects.
But rather than lose his mass appeal with the citizenry (those who “follow the rules we like” are bound to have their selectiveness come back to bite them) he enlists an above-reproach deputy to mete out the tough-love prescription: should there be any backlash, the Duke’s popularity will remain intact. Ah, the joys of having a Chief of Staff to protect the mighty from falling prematurely! (Just ask Nigel Wright or Mark Towhey what their real job descriptions were…)
Once commissioned with the task of reformation, Angelo (a darkly gripping performance from Tom Rooney—especially laying out his completely rationalized deal with the devil, offering a recently installed nun, Isabella—Carmen Grant’s best moments come when she unequivocally puts her virtue ahead of her death row brother, Claudio—Christopher Prentice—a model of stoicism with just the right touch of desire to live) chooses to make a lightening quick example of the first soiled man that his chief keystone cop (Brian Tree deftly elbows his way into the same-named role) can arrest.
For with the execution of such-a-one as Claudio (along with the simultaneous shutdown of all Viennese brothels), the Austrian capital will instantly become a paragon of virtue. Yet, given human nature, that is about as likely to happen as Conrad Black admitting any modicum of guilt for even one transgression laid at his—to him—hallowed feet.
So, how to present this conundrum of mores creatively, even as one of the world’s deadliest military conflicts comes to an end and still make everything relevant to 2013 audiences?
Well, start with a musical contraption, of course!
Composer/sound designer employed a Gordaneer (named after its creator, Jeremy Gordaneer)—a custom-made cyclophone cobbled together from all manner of “lying around” components, notably a bicycle wheel. The resulting, unique soundscape gave this Vienna a signature aura that spoke to emerging industry, high art and the common folk.
John Pennoyer’s set was entirely at one with metallic charts. A floor to ceiling steel fence remains at the far end of the Tom Patterson Theatre stage throughout the production. It’s a constant, stark reminder that all of the play’s characters—one way or another—are trapped in their own webs of deceit and half-truths. Physical metaphors don’t come much better than that.
The very first entrant through the form-over-style gate, appears to be an overdone hooker, perhaps on a late-night assignation with one of those who must be obeyed. How marvellous indeed, that the well-heeled tart turns out to be none other than the Duke in drag. This deft touch bit of silent business adds much extra meaning to the Duke’s quietly issued statement, “I am not that way” when the possibility of his own dalliances with the fairer sex come into question. To cement that notion, his man Varrius (Brad Hodder) is decked out in full leathers during the closing scenes. Yet all of this lavender subtext seems to fly in the face of the ruler’s choice of Isabella to become his bride just as the curtain follows. Does he just want a beard? Or has he had a sudden change of predilection even as the city’s morals are being systemically cleaned up? Every attentive audience member will be left to puzzle that one out, but keep a close eye on Isabella’s body language after the proposal is made.
The only serious fly in the ointment (so similar to Romeo and Juliet two nights earlier—replete with stadium lighting for the final frames) is succumbing to the temptation to grab gratuitous laughs at the expense of the underlying drama. Lucio’s (Stephen Ouimette is decidedly broad) butt salute to his rulers being an early-on example; but having the Duke (re-dressed again as the friar of observation) become positively giddy while launching his scheme to catch Angelo at his own game and rhyming off a wee bit of rap to boot, flies in the face of the ingenuity that’s afoot, as does his greedy tea taking pantomime/soliloquy.
We doth guffaw too much, methinks.
Accordingly, it was more than a little bit disappointing to have so much exceptional talent and artistry put into the final mix, only to have a few too many measures of forced hilarity weaken the impact of such a universal tale of power corrupting absolutely. JWR