Review. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, or as it might be renamed: Poverty is Better for Women Than Marriage
I first saw Measure for Measure aged seventeen at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton. Much has changed since then; all the actors were white, women didn’t play male roles and all the seats were full. At this RSC production at the Barbican last week, the emphasis was racial and sexual ‘inclusivity’ and the Bard’s story was changed to accommodate #metoo feminism.
In the programme, Ewan Fernie, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University, wrote somewhat clumsily; ‘Measure for Measure is as challenging a message for the #MeToo era as it was in the intensely and unstably religious epoch Shakespeare wrote in.’
Shakespeare’s age was in fact one of religious stability; Protestantism was established as the national church but they were heading towards Puritanism, much as we are now. The stark grey set and drab costumes remind us that this play carries a very serious message. Every RSC production I’ve seen this year has resembled a crumbling garage. Shakespeare hated and feared puritanism but even in appearance, these productions seem to signal their virtue.
This is the tortured tale of Isabella, a novice nun whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to death for fathering a child out of wedlock. The death sentence was imposed by Angelo, played by Mr Putin lookalike Sandy Grierson, deputy to the Duke of Vienna, who has gone away. In reality the good Duke is still there in disguise, watching how his people behave when he’s absent.
Angelo, in traditional and now notorious casting-couch manner, offers to rescind the sentence if Isabella will sleep with him. She decides her virtue is more important than Claudio’s death. In the end his life is saved by the good will of the Duke, played by stalwart Antony Byrne, who steps in to swap him for another prisoner.
This sexual politics, or rather the victimisation of a woman, is all highly ‘relevant’ which is what the RSC wants. The casting of women in men’s roles and black actors is a key indicator of this wokeness. Trans-racial casting can also have its drawbacks. In Wolverhampton, the pimp, Pompey Bum, was white and comical. My mother didn’t like the word ‘bum’ at all, but I soothed her with an explanation from my A level studies, that it referred to ‘bum-bailey’ someone who worked in an orchard.
Here he was played with charm and spirit by the talented David Ajao, who gave us a welcome shot of humour stand-up style. But it was not easy to see him, as a black man, being kicked and punched by white men. Those reminders are obvious to a modern audience but completely irrelevant to the play and hung in the air with nowhere to go.
Soem dark Elizabethan humour wasleft untouched in the scenes with Barnadine, played with ghoulish glee as a grotesquely cracked prisoner desperate to be executed but only when he decided the time was right. This gave us a rare scent of the cultural context of the play, not over-laid by modern sensibility. But not for long. As Fernie says, it is a political play. For those of us who can’t entirely focus on the Woke message I thought of Boris and Corbyn at the lines, ‘Some rise by sin & some by virtue fall.’
Corbyn came to mind again in the descriptions of Angelo, the classic Puritan: ‘His blood is very snow broth.’ ‘When he makes water, his urine is congealed ice,’ This neatly summed up the Left’s lack of humour. There was also an uncomfortable reminder that a large number of Corbynistae were female.
‘Women are credulous to false prints, ruined by men who take advantage,’ meaning they often like to believe what they see without thinking.
It’s surprising that such a sexist comment remained, but it was more than made up for by androgynous Lucy Phelps, as Isabella. She recently tweeted a tactical voting guide, showing here, she said, ‘it was vital to keep the Tories out.’ She looked ethereally determined and fully feminist in this production, eaten up in her character’s terrible conflict; her brother’s life or her virtue.
But there was a traditional happy ending with justice done, creepy Angelo thrown out of office, friends and lovers reunited, differences settled and marriages promised. But unlike the play I saw in the 1970s, the idea of marriage was now seen as a terrible assault on Isabella.
The Duke wanted to take her away from poverty, chastity and obedience in her convent to extreme riches as his lady wife. She was disgusted and appalled at the idea. In the sixteenth century a woman could turn down marriage to enter a convent but this Isabella spins around in distress, as much a trapped victim of the Duke as she was of lustful Angelo. Marriage can no longer be seen as a good offer even if it comes from a man we’ve watched for over two hours being just and noble. Shakespeare didn’t write a single line in agreement to this, so Phelps conveyed it via a dumb show of horrified face pulling and arm flailing.
This #metoo ending has been the version of choice for some time; and shows how flexibly Shakespeare is now dealt with; increasingly difficult for teachers and dramatists to approach, their answer is to simply erase his culture by miming the director’s personal disgust. Rather like performances for the deaf, the correct ideas you should be thinking are silently signalled by the cast.
The deaf are people of my generation, eager theatre lovers who once filled those empty seats.
RSC Barbican Until January 16th