No Half Measures For Dromgoole's Last Summer At Globe Theatre
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Measure for Measure isn't considered one of Shakespeare's easiest of plays. Literary critics have for centuries quarrelled about its central 'problem'; Isabella's dilemma and its strange structure. Is it a comedy, a tragi-comedy or even a tragedy like Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth written in the same period?
But in this production, part of artistic director Dominic Dromgoole's last summer season at the Globe Theatre, all that goes out the window. Dromgoole's production is just extremely funny, yet its funniness is also about the play's strangeness; the suppression of its leading figures' impulses to act as human beings, the criminalisation of sex and the brutality that comes so frighteningly easily to those in power.
We begin the evening with modest expectations. The Duke (Dominic Rowan), with his back to the audience gives out instructions to deputies Angelo (Kurt Egyiawen) and Escalus (Paul Rider). He's had enough of public life and wants to see how they will take on the leadership. From then on the play quickly kickstarts into life and the pace and interest never flags. The crux of the story is that Isabella's brother has been condemned to die for getting his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock. Her job and most of the play's purpose, is to work out how she might save him without putting her life in danger.
The 17th century realities of a repressed London society are brought to life. Prisoners languish behind bars on stage, the second act starts alarmingly to the sound of a woman's shrieks right in the groundlings as she's branded with a hot iron. Even when the play takes on its happy, comedic resolution at the end, there's a casual sentence of public whipping and death thrown out for the hapless and silly Lucio (Brendan O'Hea); in Shakespeare's London this was a common punishment for fornication and sexual transgression.
The brothel characters in the 'low' scenes provide much of the comedy. Our favourite is Master Froth (Dennis Herdman), the gormless Tim-nice-but-Dim type who clearly found his way into the wrong crowd with Mistress Overdone (Petra Massey), brothel keeper of 20 years' experience. Angelo's fumbling attempt at kissing Isabella is funny in a disturbing way, resulting in him juddering and falling on the floor. His acting might seem oddly wooden at times bu it's probably the best depiction of a warped figurehead, cold to the core.
As well as making this tough play funny, the other great achievement of Dromgoole's production is that it hasn't tried particularly hard to make its obsession with sexual transgression (hardly a problem in free thinking London) seem up to date. Its fresh take on a traditionally tricky and often gloomy play results in something rare, a real sense of the persecution and terror people experienced all those hundred years ago. Hard to fault.
Last Updated 03 July 2015