Sydney Independent Theatre/Sydney Shakespeare Festival at the Old Fitzroy
This Sydney Independent Theatre production of what should be a play at least as gripping as Much Ado, with just as much to say to our times, was sadly never able to sell itself as a professional work. One of the virtues of Measure for Measure is that everyone in it has an opportunity to shine, one of its pitfalls is the demands it makes on everyone in it to grab their opportunity to shine. Similarly to Shakespeare on the Green, there was the problem here of finding enough strong actors for a play with many showpiece roles. It is not hard to find three capable female actors who can hold the stage, much trickier to get eight or nine men of consistent quality.
All the actors would have been helped by greater attention to the way the verse works in this play. The rhythm in the lines gives so much assistance to the dynamic of the exchanges between characters that to ignore it is to cheat everyone out of their best source of direction. The Duke in particular has an enormous number of enormous speeches. Following the rhythms of the verse is not empty pedantry, it provides crucial support to the actor to deliver such demanding material. An Angelo with enough engaging energy can hold this play’s first half together, but eventually centre stage must be claimed by the Duke. This Duke not only had an inadequate vocal range for such an expansive text, but his physical awareness was so poor that he would often begin a movement and almost lose his balance. There are many different ways to play the Duke, but some degree of gravitas is indispensable if the audience is to believe that so many characters in the play are willing to follow his lead. After the shockingly weak Duke from Robert Menzies in Benedict Andrews’ 2010 Belvoir production, the question is, what is it about Sydney that it cannot furnish an actor capable of carrying such a role? It took until the 1970s before Isabella was given the option of looking less than grateful at the chance to marry the Duke at the end. These days it is much more common to see Isabella appalled by his proposal, but this is the first time I have seen her spit at him. Given the degree to which this Duke was attempting to punch above his weight, she was probably not behaving unreasonably.
Danielle Baynes gave a richly detailed Isabella, who managed warmth and conviction at the same time. Director Richard Hilliar should have trusted her with the full monologue that Shakespeare wrote for the character at the end of her Act II confrontation with Angelo. He keeps illustrious company in cutting most of her sole opportunity to address the audience directly (Andrews and Simon McBurney did the same), but it infuriates me each time. Directors should think highly enough of their audiences to assume they can cope with a line as complicated as “Oh perilous mouths / That bear in them one and the selfsame tongue / Either of condemnation or approof” since this is the most direct expression in the play of the theme that these same directors have sought to highlight: corruption at the highest levels of the state, the hypocrisy of people in power who themselves show the weaknesses they punish in others. I suspect that directors shy away from hearing the heroine speak lines of complex moral reasoning. They are more comfortable with allowing men like Angelo and the Duke to take care of that, while confining the women to the emotional level.
A pub theatre doesn’t have to be a disadvantage for a performance of Shakespeare, provided the director has ideas for how to treat the space as having its own virtues, not like a big stage cut down. A small and poky stage makes demands on the director’s inventiveness, which can be invigorating. Here there were too many moments when, having established a particular corner of the space as one thing or another, the actors then became trapped there, instead of going on to claim the full stage.
Measure for Measure is a deeply intelligent play. The moral questions it provokes cannot be solved in casual post-show moments, the joy of it is how many long sessions over a pint can be devoted to picking through its many challenges, both theatrical and philosophical. It is a play that can prove riveting and moving in performance, but only when its actors are confident in what and how they are communicating with their audience.
This company presents itself as a group of professionals who happen to be working on a co-op model within small means. However, some kind of extra jump needs to happen before that will be. It probably didn’t help that the cast performed this play in rep with King Lear, and had the same director. The idea that the one person could do a good job of directing two such dense and challenging plays at the same time is reckless at the very least. A more inventive and coherent design, and greater attention to vocal work, all the way down the line, might see their next Shakespearean effort become something more convincing.