At Pacific Theatre until February 8
Posted January 19, 2014
If anyone can make power-mad, dissolute Angelo look repentant at the end of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, it’s Simon Webb. Woebegone, eyes averted, he speaks the lines, “Immediate sentence then, and sequent death/Is all the grace I beg” with such sincerity, Webb does tug a little on the heartstrings. Thin as a rapier in a black velvet suit, his Angelo persuades us to consider: “Who sins most?” Does Isabella use her monstrous virtue to tempt him and if she does, can Angelo be blamed for taking the bait? It’s a meaty role and Webb serves it up splendidly.
But Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays’ with elements of comedy – mostly delivered by the simple-minded constable Elbow (Michael Fera) and ridiculously hypocritical Lucio (Peter Anderson) – offset by the threat of tragedy: the impending execution of poor Claudio (Jeff Gladstone), convicted for impregnating Juliet (Pippa Johnstone) before marriage. The balance is tricky.
The problems I have with this play are these: the Duke (Ted Cole), not wanting to do the dirty work himself, turns the cleanup of Vienna over to his deputy Angelo. Later in the play, he plays the cruelest game of cat-and-mouse with grief-stricken Isabella. He’s not a nice guy.
And then there’s Isabella (Julie McIsaac) who’s so protective of her chastity that she won’t submit to the licentious Angelo to save her brother’s life. Fair enough. But she’s okay with persuading Mariana (Katharine Venour) to sacrifice her chastity to entrap Angelo. And then, after being cruelly toyed with by the Duke, Isabella whips off her wimple falls into his arms. Huh?
In complete contrast to Isabella’s much-vaunted chastity is Pompey (Emmelia Gordon), a loud and loose bawd in ripped stockings and a scarlet, bosom-revealing minidress.
The one character we think we can hang our hopes on is Escalus (Alison Kelly), the embodiment of reason and mercy but who, in the end, is eager to exact punishment on all the malefactors.
It’s a problem play alright.
But it’s an interesting production under the direction of young Kevin Bennett whose Hamlet and King Lear (at the tiny Havana studio theatre) were brilliant. Here at Pacific Theatre he faces similar space constraints that he minimizes by making use of the north and south stairways. Shizuka Kai’s all-purpose set, which appears to be constructed of door skin or very thin plywood, features three beautiful ‘cut-out’ chandeliers. Graham Ockley’s lighting design is unique but not entirely successful: with a double clap of the hands, any of the characters can either light the stage brilliantly or throw it into the illumination of hundreds of little candles. While the change in lighting sometimes makes sense, it often feels arbitrary and it’s hard to see the actors’ faces.
Christopher David Gauthier’s costumes hint at Jacobean without complete fidelity to the period: velvet, faux leather, lace and brocade. Anderson, in the role Shakespeare referred to as ‘Lucio, a fantastic’, is outrageously outfitted in purple, floral skinny jeans, a light-coloured, fitted brocade jacket and a beret-looking affair on his head. (Later, in another role, Anderson appears half naked then in a lightning-fast costume change re-emerges fully dressed. Now there’s a YouTube that would go viral.)
Chris Adams’ sound design ranges somewhat awkwardly from brassy heraldry to contemporary.
This Honest Fishmongers production makes effective use of the space and Bennett makes some interesting directorial choices. With the loss of some actors well into the rehearsal period, opening night had some shaky moments but, without doubt, these will smooth out; this is a skilled cast.
But here’s the thing: I don’t much like this play. Do I care about Claudio? No. Isabella? I should but I don’t. Angelo? Well, with Simon Webb in the role it’s possible, at the very least, to dredge up pity. But it’s hardly enough to measure up to the best Shakespeare has to offer.