In outward show at least, Shakespeare’s
Globe Theatre production of "Measure for Measure" -
which runs through Sunday, Jan. 1 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO
- belies an ultra-traditional approach.
Jennifer Tiramani’s stately costumes are ornamented with ruff collars, lacey cuffs and brocade capes; Claire van Kampen’s courtly musical arrangements are played on 16th-century instruments like hammer dulcimer, bagpipe and recorder; and many of the all-male cast are powdered to within an inch of their lives.
Yet on closer examination, the sensibility informing London’s lauded touring production ends up infinitely more Victorian than Elizabethan as director Mark Rylance has instructed his two primary cross-dressing actors to play the lead female characters as sexually repressed.
Dressed in corsets that stress their flat chests (as well as the seams), these Amazonian ingenues skirt cliched feminine wiles and weaknesses by exhibiting a highly pronounced reserve that suggests their brains as well as their bodies have been restrained by the most stringent morality. Edward Hogg’s Isabella is all pinched voice and gently prayerful hands (plus a single swoon), while Michael Brown’s Mariana has a royal stiffness that’s firm without being steely.
Since neither performer camps or vamps outside the quietly quivering voices and highly contained movements meant to convey courtly femininity, these roles never register as either real women or comic mockeries. They’re well-behaved geldings in girlish gear - a strange conceit when you consider the script’s narrative thrust is nothing if not hormonal.
Shakespeare’s tale starts with one novitiate, Isabella, finding her world upended when, on the eve of renouncing all earthly pleasures for convent life, she’s called upon to argue for her brother’s release from prison. (He’s been sentenced to die. The crime? Premarital intercourse.) The self-righteous judge, Angelo, acting as surrogate for the exiled Duke, invites her to trade her virginity for her brother’s freedom. Instead, with the help of the Duke, who’s disguised as a friar, she sets up her persecutor to sleep with his own former fiancée, Mariana, who’s been pining for him for five long years.
To strip these principal players of all carnal desire is to turn what is usually an impassioned battle of the sexes into a coolly conceived war of philosophies. Any transgression registers as conceptual; any stated irrational longing, as a crafty political move.
Liam Brennan’s Angelo isn’t lusting after Hogg’s Isabella. He’s challenging her religious code. Mariana isn’t moonstruck by her former betrothed. She’s seeking her rightful husband. With Freudian overtones set securely on the back burner, this "Measure for Measure" is short on heat.
It’s akin to an "Othello" with an all-white cast or a "Richard III" with a matinee idol dressed to the nines. Which is not to say it can’t, or doesn’t, work but simply how strange it is to begin with. Similar to the National Asian American Theatre Company’s pan-Asian take on "Othello" in 2000 which turned the feud between Iago and the Moor into a straightforward potboiler, this production resurfaces as an Adlerian contest of wills with, this time, chastity instead of adultery, as the linchpin.
Power is everything - even as rape is held at abeyance. And as the central conflict between Angelo and Isabella is desexualized, a secondary element comes to the fore.
The Duke (played with comic brio by Rylance himself) shifts from a benign puppet-master to an insecure protagonist whose makeshift machinations are impromptu expressions of his own fears and desires. Taking his cue from the line "I love the people/But do not like to stage me to their eyes," Rylance’s Duke is a self-conscious, if well-meaning, ruler, an emotionally stunted middle-aged monarch whose bungled phrasing and abrupt lapses into silence reflect a discomfort with the emotional and sexual realms. A sub-subplot concerning a self-aggrandizing courtier named Lucio (Colin Hurley) who slanders the Duke when the latter’s incognito, and slanders the alter ego when the Duke reappears, emerges as a significant narrative arc that reflects the development of the Duke’s self-confidence, a development that runs parallel to his evolving love for Isabella.
The success of this "Measure for Measure," and it’s a major one at that, is how the Duke’s final proposal of marriage to the sometime nun - which had formerly consigned the text to problem play status - no longer comes out of nowhere. Instead, his proposal (which goes unanswered) comes across as the natural expression of a man who has finally gotten in touch with his feelings. You only wish that the actions which have inspired him were as richly conceived.
As Mariana says, "They say the best men are molded out of faults/And, for the most, become much more the better/For being a little bad." The same could be said of Shakespeare revivals.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London’s
production of "Measure for Measure" runs Monday through
Saturday at 7:30 pm and Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm through
Jan. 1 at St. Ann’s Warehouse (38 Water St. between Main and
Front streets in DUMBO). Tickets are $60. For tickets, call (718)
254-8779. For more information, visit www.artsat