Measure for Measure

The Sydney Theatre School’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure grapples gallantly with its intricate material, but fails to leave much of an impression. The abridged script runs at a solid ninety minutes, but its weighty issues still feel uncomfortably squashed, its delicious moments of role-reversal deprived of breathing space. That said, the production actually manages to feel overlong; sometimes it has so little to offer that you might as well be reading the play to yourself.

This production is a good opportunity for GCSE or A-Level students to see Measure for Measure performed live.

For newcomers to the story, Measure for Measure begins with the faked departure of the Duke (here Duchess) of Vienna. Angelo, her stone-hearted deputy, is given total command of the city in what he believes is her absence, while she disguises herself as a friar to see how he will act. When he sentences the young Claudio to death for impregnating the unmarried Juliet, Isabella (Claudio’s sister and a novice nun) pleads for mercy from Angelo. Angelo finds himself attracted to Isabella and is forced to choose whether or not to compromise his ideals and give in to his desire.

There are some commendable performances on display. Simon Thomson’s loathsome Angelo is perfectly pitched: proud, unyielding and smarmy. Unfortunately his counterpart, the irritatingly tearful Isabella (Sabrina Brandon), rarely captivates in their discussions of justice, portraying less the steely inner surety of a woman of faith and more a wretched, wet anguish. She’s so unlikeable that when justice is done at the end of the play, there’s no real sense of vindication. An essential dose of comedy comes with Dale William Morgan, an engagingly devilish Lucio who quarrels amusingly with the coldly manipulative ‘friar’ (Erin Louise Cotton), unwittingly putting his foot in it with the Duchess.

The biggest problem with the production is the modernisation of its setting, which is done in perhaps the most half-hearted way possible: bawds are replaced with so-called ‘exotic dancers’ in the clubs Lucio attends. That is actually, laughably, it. When you enter the venue and scantily clad dancers prowl about the stage before the opening scene, you might expect to be transported to some atmospheric, neon-lit, brothel-infested Australian conurbation. Perhaps you are meant to be, but any further modernisation of the setting - Claudio being on death row rather than in a simple jail, for example - is left entirely to your imagination. The set is very bare, which isn’t inherently bad - it just means that all we ever know about the setting is that we are in ‘Vienna’ - which is apparently anywhere you want it to be.

Apart from the club, the other hint of modernisation is in the costume: Angelo is stiffly suited, Lucio given some gold bling and a jauntily-angled trilby. The provost wears a prison-guard’s outfit with Yale keys on her belt; prisoners appear in bright orange jumpsuits. The modern setting is uncomfortably taboo though, going unmentioned both in the programme and the play. There is no attempt to link the play to modern countries with capital punishment or strict marriage laws. Actually, there is no recognisable modern subtext whatsoever to make it relevant or interesting. The Elizabethan dialogue is simply cut and pasted into a non-descript yet startlingly incongruous modern world. The company has made so little effort to tailor the setting to the issues of the play that it’s hard to see any point to this skin-deep adaptation.

This production is a good opportunity for GCSE or A-Level students to see Measure for Measure performed live. Apart from the impressive performances of Thomson, Morgan and Cotton though, it is so dull that it feels rather like an exercise in how not to modify Shakespeare. 

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The Blurb

Shakespeare's dark comedy about justice, morality and mercy in which a nun pleads for her brother's life and unleashes the lust of the strict deputy who offers to spare him - in exchange for her virginity.

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