Measure for Measure
Emlyn Willams Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru
10 April – 3 May 2008
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Duke Vincentio – David Fielder
Angelo – Paul Amos
Escalus – John Cording
Isabella – Leila Crerar
Lucio – Steven Elliot
Provost – Brendan Charleson
Pompey – Richard Elis
Claudio – Jordan Bernarde
Barnadine – Christopher Robert
Elbow – Andrew Clark
Mariana – Louise Collins
Froth / Friar Peter – Guy Lewis
Mistress Overdone – Rachel Lumberg
Juliet – Bettrys Jones
Abhorson – Grahame Fox
Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Max Jones
Composer – Dyfan Jones
Sound – Matthew Williams
Lighting – Tina MacHugh
Assistant Director – Mared Swain
Article by Dr Carol Rutter (published in the 2008 Shakespeare Review)
The stink of lechery hung like low-level fog over the 1890s Vienna of Phillip Breen’s intense and searching Measure for Measure at Clwyd Theatr Cymru. The culture on view was a culture that took itself seriously – a culture who wore black, played Chopin etudes, and, for kicks, dressed its whores in Kaiser helmets; a culture whose physical geography inscribed on its surfaces hypocrisies (or perhaps just confusions of purpose) that it simultaneously exposed and repressed, an urban geography shared by the licit and illicit. The brooding set, brilliantly designed by Max Jones for Clwyd's studio space, was both public and secret, promiscuous and claustrophobic, indoor and outside. High black walls of what felt like a courtroom (perhaps) or a railway station or a cloister reached up to one single opening, a high-set rose window filled with clear glass that let into the gloom the only natural light. The elegantly tiled floor spoke of pattern, order, social intricacy. But its central space was in-set with a metal grill – like a lid on lavatories or police cells buried underground – that oozed smoke. Lit from below, it suffused the space with the shadows of expressionist nightmare. Along the back wall, an iron stairway trundled pedestrians up and down – perhaps to prison, or to knee-tremblers against damp surfaces. For openers, as Chopin played, there was a leather hat box on stage, a couple of suitcases, and a single, formally dressed flunkey. Waiting. Clasped hands occasionally tensing. Waiting. Another figure appeared. Then another. Each time, the noise of the entrance made those waiting tense. Each time, the courtier entering took up a formal position. And waited. So did Angelo (Paul Amos), whose frock coat and little beard made him young Freud, but whose burning eyes, the eyes of a firebrand, turned him into young Marx. Waiting.
The time this took, the tension it built, showed a director taking risks and pulling them off. When Vincentio (David Fielder) finally entered, lank grey hair grazing his overcoat, looking like a pettifogging lawyer pursuing Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, wearing his failure stale about him and itching to get out of town, the scene slammed into top gear, and the pace never let up. Scenes overlapped with scenes, but constantly got held up in the cross-over, making me aware how much of this play is about interrupted exits, exits called back, new entrances wrong-footed on the brink of things. Except for a disappointing Duke, Breen’s ensemble were right on the money, their finely judged portraits of Vienna’s would-be saints and has-been slummers constantly reversing understanding of who, precisely, the city’s monsters were. Steven Elliot’s rouge-lipped playboy Lucio went everywhere in wilted evening dress and champagne haze, but his wit was as lacerating as the ebony cane he whipped out to illustrate it. Richard Elis’s beefy Pompey in brown bowler, soiled rag neckerchief, and waistcoat losing the fight to cover his paunch might have been a drover calling prices in Smithfield meat market. His Welsh voice moving caressingly over all the r’s in a line like ‘Groping for trouts, in a peculiar river’ delivered something like aural sex – though his bug-eyed amazement at each instalment of the news he was delivering made him the perpetual innocent, or at least gave the impression of someone surprised by sleaze. Effete, bent like an apology, screwing his defence before the law out of pinched fingers, Guy Lewis’s Froth in spats and cutaway coat was a toff’s Uriah Heep with an ice cream cone quiff. Grahame Fox’s skinhead Abhorson was terrifying – not because of his blood-stiff leather apron and cradled meat axe, but because of his absolute stillness, the menace of the cobra just before it strikes. The one bright moth flapping around this darkness was Rachel Lumberg’s Mrs. Overdone: her cheeks as livid as plague sores; her yellow curls screwed to her scalp; her abundant avoirdupois spilling out of her velvet gown, and her washer-woman right arm capable of slinging her girls downstairs without their feet so much as touching the ground. Low-life Vienna was not so much Under Milkwood as under Cardiff docks.
At the centre of this production, Leila Crerar’s Isabella and Amos’s Angelo really were innocents: her face shining under her short veil; his face twisting as new thoughts knotted in his brain. Her first ‘YES!’ (‘Yes: I do think you might pardon him’) came out so loud it shocked her. His voice, picking his way across the tortured debates Shakespeare writes, line by line, into Measure’s impacted utterance lifted up each contradiction, each rhetorical shift and turn to inspection. She followed the argument, physically leaning into the contours of the persuasion. Here, the cerebral was erotic; the words they exchanged, arousal. When she touched him (‘Go to your bosom / Knock there, and ask your heart…’) it was as though she had slammed 10000 volts through his nervous system. When he scrambled inexpertly to grope her (‘Be that you are /…a woman’) and almost by accident yanked off her veil, the violation felt like rape.
Finally, though, it was Mariana – the incandescent Louise Collins – who saved the life of this Measure for comedy: who simply wouldn’t be silenced by the Duke’s (as it happens, wrong) judgements (‘we are definitive’; ‘Away with him to death’; ‘Against all sense you do importune’). A tiny Welsh terrier worrying away at blind authority, she performed the miracle of making Vincentio think again. Making him remember a prisoner. When Jordan Bernarde’s prison-wrecked, shuffling Claudio, unhooded, blinking in the light, fell into his sister’s arms and Angelo, wonderingly, embraced Mariana, the heart-breaking love story this play tells felt complete.
The Western Mail
Sharp and interesting look at Shakespeare problem play
'Phillip Breen .... brings a fresh eye to what has been considered a problem play. He has moved the setting to .... early 20th century Vienna, when the political landscape is unstable and awaiting world war one...the production is well paced with a certain panache and some fine performances from Clwyd's informal rep system'
A Tight Effective Measure
by Adam Somerset
A draconian, unworkable law is revived and applied selectively. A disguised, manipulative autocrat hides behind an all-powerful deputy. Justice is tradable for sexual favour. The temptations to give Measure for Measure a modern spin are considerable. It was not so long back that a great director covered his stage with video cameras turning Shakespeare's Vienna into a twenty-first century surveillance state.
Director Phillip Breen has resisted all such temptation. Within the relatively restricted space at his disposal he has opted for a fast-paced production, spare in set detail, sombrely coloured, with moments of black humour.
A high rose window shines over the stage, a reminder we are in an age that is not our own. In Isabella's opening scene her dialogue with Francisca, the elder nun, takes place before a life-size crucified Christ. In the subsequent first crucial scene with Angelo, the opening of Shakespeare's dialectic on justice versus mercy, her language is rich with religious infusion. Heaven and hell have now generally passed over into the domain of metaphor. In this interpretation we are reminded that these are real entities for her, that, in her repeated reference, prayer is indeed 'the Churches banquet, Angels age, God's breath in man'.
Phillip Breen has cast the two principal parts with young actors. Whatever age Leila Crerar might be, with her face enclosed in a white veil, her Isabella has the look of the young noviciate. When Duke Vincentio explains his latest devious scheme Ms Crerar's eyes narrow; the intelligence is that of the eager pupil.
Paul Amos gives his similarly youthful Angelo a flash of teeth and an easy smile. He is recognisable; this is the Balliol double first, the good-looking policy wonk, promoted too young, too early to the ambiguities of executive office. His youth makes his flip-over to moral blackmail all the more believable.
The production fields a cast of twenty. As would be expected Steven Elliot is a commanding stage presence with a dishevelled Lucio, taking pause for regular swigs from his hip flask. Richard Elis offers an irrepressible, effervescent Pompey and in the small part of Master Froth Guy Lewis makes a strong impression, helped not least by a memorable shock of hair that looks fresh from an outing in a wind tunnel.
Visually the production is sombre. The set comprises a trio of dark flat arches. The police have stepped out of a Simplicissimus cartoon and meet with darkly cowled monks. Rachel Lumberg as Mistress Overdone wears a dress in lurid purple, that stands out all the more for its colour contrast.
By circumstance I was obliged to see the first preview performance. A review is not entirely fair on cast or backstage team, particularly where a production is staged in the round. It required some nimble adaptation in the actors? voice projection to the sheer sound-absorbing presence of two hundred plus stolid bodies. From the quality of the preview this ?Measure for Measure? is set to mature into another creditable addition to the theatre's track record.
Reading between the lines this may be Phillip Breen's first Shakespeare production. If that is the case then Theatr Clwyd Cymru should take pause for a short interval of self-congratulation for an interpretation that is tight, intelligent and unshowy.
Exhilarating and often very funny
by Victor Hallett
Measure for Measure is regarded as one of Shakespeare's problem comedies. There's no difficulty in finding the problems. They are caused by the Duke of Vienna's decision to leave the city and put his puritanical deputy Angelo in charge. Soon firm moral laws that have been relaxed are reinforced and Claudio finds himself condemned to death for having sexual relations with his betrothed. This leads to his sister Isabella, a novice in a convent, having to decide whether to sacrifice her virginity to save her brother. So there they are; problems of morality, of duty, of life and death, of fidelity, of belief, of public accountability.
What particularly distinguishes Phillip Breen's fast and furious production is that the comedy is brought to the fore as well. The low-life character of Pompey can be tiresomely unfunny but Richard Elis gives him a vigour that creates real impact and comic timing that gets laughs from the most obscure comic lines. Steven Elliot does even better with Lucio, a louche man about town. He in particular benefits from the decision to set the play in 19th-century Hapsburg Vienna, playing him as though he had strayed in from a Noel Coward comedy. His scenes when encountering the disguised Duke are particularly funny.
Yes ? the Duke hasn't really left, he's wandering around, disguised as a friar, looking over the havoc being wrought by his scheme. David Fielder's delightful performance brings an almost playful quality to the ducal games and I've never before noticed how close the character comes, albeit as a fake friar, to replicating the mistakes of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet.
Paul Amos is an excellent Angelo, almost downplaying the hypocrisy until he explodes in his near rape of Isabella, utterly terrifying in this close up production. Leila Crerar suffers somewhat from the speed of the production; too many of Isabella's early attempts to persuade Angelo to change his mind are lost in a tumble of words. However she gains strength and stature after the attack when her threatened, youthful innocence becomes palpable. By the time of the climactic confrontation she is very good indeed and the image of her final bewilderment after the Duke's proposal, delivered in an amazing throwaway style, is the perfect way to end the play.
Among the big cast there are many cherishable smaller performances, John Cording's honest statesman, Andrew Clark's confused Constable, Graham Fox's blood-spattered executioner and Christopher Robert's enormous and very shaggy Barnadine among them.
Max Jones' superb and overpowering set, with its rose window and massive grill set in the floor, transforms the Emlyn Williams theatre into an increasingly claustrophobic space. Phillip Breen's direction ensures that not a moment is wasted; the time fairly flies by as events move ahead with ferocious forward momentum. This is a gripping, exhilarating and often very funny production of a play that's not at all easy to bring off well.
Guy Lewis (Froth) and Richard Elis (Pompey). Photo: Tracy Booth
Paul Amos (Angelo) and Leila Crerar (Isabella). Photo: Tracy Booth
Paul Amos (Angelo) and Leila Crerar (Isabella). Photo: Tracy Booth
Leila Crerar (Isabella) and Jordan Bernarde (Claudio). Photo: Tracy Booth
Rachel Lumberg (Mistress Overdone). Photo: Tracy Booth
Max Jones's exquisite rose window. Photo: Tracy Booth
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