Trigger warning: This review of Measure for Measure contains mention of self-harm and sexual assault.
As we wait for theatres to reopen in May, after too long of a leave of absence, companies around the world have released recordings online of productions old and new. This production is the former, a staging of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, produced by the Goodman Theatre, and recorded in 2013. Seeing it for the first time in 2021, the production is a reminder of how worryingly zeitgeisty this play has the potential to be.
If you’re needing a re-cap of the play, Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna (but is re-imagined here in 1970s New York), a city that has fallen into moral panic amidst rising decay and corruption. Angelo (Jay Whittaker) is a pious deputy who leads by example and sentences Claudio (Kevin Fugaro) to death for having sex before marriage, a law that was in place but never previously enforced. When Claudio’s sister, the novice Isabella (Alejandra Escalante), attempts to convince Angelo to spare her brother’s life, Angelo agrees, but at a terrible price.
Though it’s often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ (a term coined by F.S. Boas, highlighting a trio of The Bard’s texts that quickly shift between comedy and tragedy), this production really highlights the problematic aspects of the original script. Measure for Measure is a play full of uncomfortable images and ideas, and this production, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from it. Actions that are only implied or threatened in the text are amplified in uncomfortable ways: Angelo cuts himself as punishment for lustful thoughts, and also goes on to attempt to rape Isabella. The Goodman Theatre’s intention to highlight the gruesome elements of Shakespeare’s text in a contemporary way is an admirable goal.
How effective is this? Well, the characters’ dilemmas and morals are highlighted through the extreme actions described above, and so the visceral threat and suspense which they face are brought to the forefront of the production as a result. Escalante and Whittaker give the most stand-out performances; Escalante balances both the pain and anger of Isabella and what she is forced to go through perfectly, whilst Whittaker does an excellent job of making you loathe and understand Angelo in equal measure. The rest of the cast gives less complex, but still similarly enjoyable, performances- although the comedic subplot falls a little flat with a lot of forced physical humour, rather than relying on the subtle wit of the writing.
Beyond the character elements, however, the overall atmosphere gets a little convoluted. The play begins with a gratuitous sequence of debauchery, lechery, and prostitution, with the impression that this is a Shakespearean re-telling, set in Sin City. Granted, Measure for Measure is perhaps the play best deserved of such an aesthetic (except for Titus Andronicus, maybe), but for the most part, this design falls away to be replaced by grey coats and the occasional priest garment, so the effect is lessened by the production’s unwillingness to fully commit to the look.
Overall, this production of Measure for Measure is a strong reminder of how timeless Shakespeare can be when done well. Though occasionally faltering in the delivery of certain elements, it goes down hard on the themes of abuse of power and manipulation, and certainly deserves credit for that. Helmed by complex performances and filmed to capture the nuances and creativity of the direction, this production is a fine way to introduce yourself to one of Shakespeare’s most morally complex plays.
Words by Mischa Alexander.
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