Measure for Measure

The audience walk straight into the underbelly of Vienna with the auditorium transformed into a brothel. A couple of semi-naked girls and a corseted Mistress Overdone offer their services to men and jobs to the women in the front two rows. It set the tone of playfulness for the base characters of the play, but also an awkwardness with many audience members not knowing where to look.

Measure for Measure, Act One, Chapter Arts Centre
Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare
Act One, Chapter Arts Centre
Director: Josey O’Neal
Starring: Charlie Winters,
James Rhys Davies, Lottie Davies

Measure for Measure explores many dark themes through the morals of its three main characters, who all gave authoritative performances despite their young age. Vienna’s Duke of dark corners, played by Charlie Withers, is introduced in a white military jacket, with his broad frame and shaved head giving him authority over the smaller, boyish Angelo. James Davies’ Angelo looked out of his depth from the start, ‘dressed in a little brief authority’ and an ill-fitting suit.

Angelo soon transforms from a young, grateful man, to a tyrant, enforcing Vienna’s neglected laws with full force, eager to prove himself. His encounter with Isabella sees him transform from a calm, cold authority figure into frantic, hypocritical, would-be-rapist. In his second encounter with Isabella, Angelo proposed she sleep with him to save her brother’s life, and when she refused, he grabs her and pins her down to the desk, before just regaining control of himself. This violent moment saw a peak in intensity with his character that plateaued at this high level for the rest of the play.

Lottie Davies played the role of virginal nun coveting restraint well. In an age where audiences most likely do not value virginity and religion in the same way, Lottie managed to evoke sympathy from a difficult character. Her obliviousness to Angelo’s proposition at first and his following violent outburst positioned her as victim. O’Neal interpreted Isabella’s silence from Shakespeare’s original text in the final Act to be not in favour of the Duke’s marriage proposal. Her disgusted response leaves both him and the audience with no doubt that she’s sticking to her morals and will be returning to the nunnery, probably keeping away from men for as long as she can.

The comic scenes with the base characters are few and far between, but the cast do well with Shakespeare’s original scenes, which make little-to-no sense and contain difficult jokes which would really only appeal to a contemporary audience. O’Neal played up the slapstick element: Elbow is given a speech impediment and an overly expressive face and many of the laughs arose from the delivery. Lucio’s cheeky retorts carried this light-heartedness throughout. Every inch the loveable scamp, his comic interjections in serious scenes added relief from the darker themes and motifs of the play.

One other notable performance was Joy-Aisling Brown’s Escalaus (here Escala), the character whose name embodies the scales of the play’s namesake. Brown kept calm and controlled throughout, balancing out with Angelo’s high emotion performance and the Duke’s constant shift in character and disguises. Her character worked to ground the action and act as a moral compass in a play where the morals of all those involved are continually changing, undermined and overall questionable.

The final act was handled well with a lingering, melancholic ending suited to one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, and which questioned the fragile happy ending. The ‘happy couples’ were left on stage as the eerie soundtrack grew louder. Lucio, our comic companion throughout, is last to leave the stage, silent and grim after being condemned to death. A steep price for slandering a prince, his sentence raises doubt that with the Duke’s return, justice really will be reinstated.