Measure For Measure is one of the bard’s lesser known plays; a Shakespeare B-side if you will (if I seem wittier than usual on this topic, it’s because I’m totally plagiarising the commentary of my learned theatre-going companion). It’s all about sex and power, politics and corruption, with ample use of Shakespeare’s favoured devices – mistaken identity, disguises, the scene at the end where every character is inexplicably in one place (not unlike Gossip Girl, now I think of it) and some multiple weddings. But mostly, the switcheroo. Old Bill loved the switcheroo.
The duke of Vienna (Robert Menzies) goes undercover as a friar after handing over control of the city to his puritanical deputy Angelo (Damien Gameau). Angelo amps up the vice squad and sets out to make an example of Claudio (Chris Ryan), sentencing him to death for fornication after he knocks up Julietta (Maeve Dermody). Claudio’s mate Lucio (Toby Schmitz) goes to Claud’s sister Isabella (Robin McLeavy) and encourages her to beg Angelo for mercy; Angelo falls in love with her and his sudden discovery of desire undoes everything he’s about. His confusion becomes hypocrisy and he offers to save her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Throw in some prostitutes and confetti and that about sums it up.
Benedict Andrews’ production for Company B put a very modern twist on the show. The set was a pared down hotel room that rotated at varying speeds, which added some choreographic challenges for the actors and became a great dramatic device as things were revealed and concealed from the audience. Then there was the use of video cameras, both hidden in the set and wielded by the actors: giving a more intimate view of the action and tapping into the ideas of surveillance, sex tapes and invasion of privacy. It worked incredibly in a scene between brother and sister Claudio and Isabella, the glass shower wall between them representing his prison cell. On the darkened stage, the camera caught their distraught reflections in Blair Witch night-vision as they desperately pleaded with each other as to who faced the greater sacrifice; her purity or his life.
The first scene was a sex scene, then there was an orgy with some prostitutes, and probably most confronting was when death-row inmate Barnadine was told he’d be hanged the next day and went a bit nuts. As in full-frontal nudity, poo-smearing, fake blood-spitting, set-trashing while Nick Cave wailed at high volume and the set spun at top speed, nuts. Considering I’d last seen the actor, Colin Moody, in the gentle ABC serial beloved by my mum called Something In The Air, it was quite powerful.
One thing that fascinates me about theatre is a show’s potential to evolve over its run. That’s why it was great to chat to some of the actors after the play, to hear some of the stories from behind the scenes. I mean, this is three hours of Shakespeare every day, sometimes twice a day, for six weeks (the last performance is tonight): things are bound to be honed. The word Barnadine wrote with his poo was always “shit”, but other scenes had changed over the weeks. When we saw the scene between Claudio and Isabella there was a weirdly intense kiss, but early in the run it was much more explicitly incestuous. And Toby Schmitz’s bawdy Lucio was originally more of a sex pest, but eventually this was distilled down to a single, insane scene where he performed cunnilingus on a lily.