First published in The Times, Monday July 16 2017
There is always an element of suspense for audiences to any production of Measure for Measure – even for those who have seen Shakespeare’s most problematic play many times. How will the director and company reconcile the pessimistic depiction of corrupted power, sexuality and relationships with the play’s supposedly comedic elements, including the final flurry of marriages, two of which are meted out as punishments?
In Gordon Barr’s adaptation for Bard in the Botanics, the bold solution lies in dispensing entirely with ribald subplots and sojourns into the fleshpots of Vienna, focusing almost exclusively on the incendiary back-and-forth between Angelo (Adam Donaldson), the martinet placed in temporary charge of the city, and the novitiate, Isabella (Nicole Cooper), who refuses to yield to the tyrant’s increasingly frantic sexual advances. The only laughs here are derived from Shakespeare’s elaborate euphemisms for genitalia and sex.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
There’s a satisfying purity to this approach, and Isabella’s moral dilemma is given added intensity in Barr’s production by the intimacy of the setting – a slim stretch of the Kibble Palace glasshouse – and the fact that an ensemble of just four actors enacts the pared-back, high-stakes drama.
Both leads are superb, each giving full expression to their characters’ agonising internal conflicts. Donaldson plays Angelo as a starchy bureaucrat and hectoring zealot who is so unnerved by the strength of his lust for Isabella that he takes to self-flagellation. In the disturbing scene in which Angelo attempts to force himself upon the nun-to-be, it is telling that he appears just as flustered and horrified by his lack of self-control as she does.
Cooper, meanwhile, excels at showing the anguish that underpins her resolve to hold on to her virtue, even if it means ultimately condemning her sister, Claudia (Esme Bayley), incarcerated for fornication, to death. With the play being performed as part of a season entitled “These Headstrong Women”, the fact that Barr has changed the sibling relationship from one of sister-and-brother adds a further layer of poignancy to Isabella’s predicament.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Bayley and Kirk Bagé as the duke who absents himself from the city only to return in the guise of a friar in order to covertly observe its progress, give equally nuanced, credible supporting performances. Barr’s stark production brings the play’s prescient evocation of a society helpless in the face of despotism and religious dogma into sharp focus while the final focus on the love between the two sisters is an innovation that also feels timely.