Shakespeare’s Globe is having a bit of a mare in the programming department, what with the Almeida’s Oresteia opening in the West End within five days of their version, and the Young Vic’s Measure for Measure clashing with the last part of the Globe’s run. And the Young Vic have got Romola Garai. I will be seeing the Young Vic version next week, but how have the Globe decided to present this problem play? Dominic Dromgoole directs this tale of marriage, legality, pretend monks and death sentences as his final parade before Emma Rice takes over as Artistic Director.
The stakes are high, then, on all accounts. Vincentio, The Duke (Dominic Rowan), has abandoned his lascivious and verging-on-violent kingdom into the hands of Angelo (Kurt Egyiawan) – who obstinately enforces laws long since forgotten. Thus a young man, Claudio, is put in mortal danger as an example to the people. The Duke returns as an overseer to the proceedings disguised in a monk’s habit. Rowan plays him as an improviser, caught up in the whims of the moment, without the calculating edge implied in the text.
Claudio has got Juliet pregnant (oops) but they are very much in love and according to them (and Renaissance law) they vowed their commitments to each in a manner constituting marriage. Antonio is having none of it and sentences Claudio. Meanwhile, Claudio’s sister – described as a beguiling, persuasive sort – is about to become a nun but a message is delivered to her about her brother’s impending peril. Isabella quickly attends.
Gale, who plays Isabella, is a *brilliant* Shakespearean actor who played Ophelia in David Tennant’s Hamlet and Juliet in the RSC’s most epic Romeo and Juliet, which I saw twice because I loved it so much. But I get the sense that Isabella is just a bit of a boring part for her. Either that, or she makes it so. The Isabella Shakespeare writes, as I have always read her, has sass combined with the highest standards of purity. If she was an emoji, she’d be the sassy hand girl with an angel halo. She is a woman who holds onto her own morals, her eternal life in heaven and the morality of her family above all else in absolute defiance. Gale’s Isabella is given the lovely touch of being the one to take the Duke’s hand in marriage, in the concluding scene, literally putting the power of their relationship in her hand
However, her persuasion scene with Antonio didn’t hold me captive. There wasn’t anything in it to justify his (creepy, misogynist) besottal with her. Maybe that’s OK because it made us hate Angelo’s disgusting and hypocritical proposition even more and it gave strength to her female body in the attempted rape scene. That scene was handled particularly well. So too was her calm and gritty threat of revealing Angelo’s attack, to which he gives the chilling reply that no one would believe her. Today, this became an apt comment on the disempowerment of women through rape culture.
In spite of this near-tragic, disturbing storyline, the production itself is very entertaining. True to classic Globe style, there was plenty of clowning, mincing walks and funny antics. The brothel owners and good-for-nothings revel in abandon, fighting back against the suddenly puritanical reign of Angelo. The physical humour works well when you have a partially (predominantly?) tourist audience. There were a few times when it all got a bit messy and ridiculous rather than sharp and funny, which was a shame.
This was a courageous handling of a problematic text and an entertaining evening to boot. It just wasn’t quite carried off with the perfection I would expect.
Measure for Measure is at Shakespeare’s Globe until 17 October. For more details and to book see the Globe’s website.