Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ are far from his most liked and most performed due to their ambiguity in tone, sometimes unlikable characters, and often long stretches with little happening on stage. However, a strong production of such a play can be almost more effective and enjoyable than that of a popular show; the unfamiliarity strengthens curiosity while smart staging, characterisation, and dramaturgy unburdens the play of its joyless philosophising. Heady Conduct’s Measure for Measure, currently playing at the Rose Playhouse, is such an entertaining delight. Clever storytelling, excellent characterisation, and audience engagement create an atmosphere of camaraderie between actors and spectators, and the plot’s heavier elements are acknowledged but not allowed to take over the innate, fast-paced fun of its intrigue.
In a nutshell, this version of Shakespeare’s classic is fantastic due to its clear focus on three key elements: plot, humour, and emotion. The play begins with a mimed depiction of Angelo leaving Mariana at the altar – an event alluded to in the play but never actually shown. This gives the audience some context when the plot begins to unfold, when Angelo is left as deputy of Vienna in the Duke’s absence and immediately begins sentencing all out-of-wedlock lovers to death. In a play where disguises and substitutions – at the block and in the bedchamber – are rife, each plot twist is easy to follow.
Additionally, Measure for Measure features such happy elements as the above deputy trying to convince a novice nun to sleep with him in exchange for her brother’s life, sentenced to death for the aforementioned unlawful relations. This production, however, does not allow these moral debates to cloud the jokes and dark humour; every opportunity for genuine humour is taken – and a delight.
Lastly, when dark moments are present, these are played sincerely and effectively instead of glossed over; while the comedy may be emphasised, it does not cheapen the storytelling. This emotion showcases the human, relatable aspects of this often-abstruse play. Aided by a smart condensing of the text into a brisk ninety minutes (not to mention comic entertainment during the scene transitions provided by Isabella’s overeager order of nuns) and a six-actor company who clearly and intelligently delivery the text, Measure for Measure becomes a thoroughly entertaining evening.
The characterisations bear mentioning as well for their energy and dynamism. In particular, Isabella, Angelo, and Lucio had significantly engaging qualities. The novice was anything but the passive, ultra-moralistic damsel in distress, instead matching Angelo’s and the Duke’s fire and endearing with her young awkwardness. Angelo was similarly more awkward, which made him more pathetic and less creepy – fitting in with the production’s tone. And while always the raucous, bawdy character, here Lucio took his interactions with Vienna’s lowlife to the audience in such a way that the audience was complicit and interactive with his blustering schemes.
While the performance itself was excellent, the space was the ideal venue for the staging (and indeed a unique, dynamic space in its own right). The Rose Playhouse is situated on the ruins of the original 1587 playhouse, which hosted many Marlowe and Shakespeare premieres during Elizabethan times. Now it is comprised of a small wooden platform, with an intimate stage and seating area, and a spacious, shadowy archaeological site sprawling out behind. This allows the performance to utilise depth, space, and lighting to the full atmospheric advantage as well as scenes to end in one area and start in the other instantaneously.
There is little – if anything – to criticise in this fast-paced, engaging, and hilarious production of a play that is often bogged down by dour moralising. Heady Conduct’s energy, intelligence, and flair for entertainment make this ‘problem play’ a delight to experience and highly recommended; this young company may have a promising future ahead. Whether or not you are familiar with Measure for Measure and/or Shakespeare, this is not a performance to be missed.
Measure for Measure is playing at the Rose Playhouse (56 Park Street, Southwark) until May 29th. Performances are at 7.30pm Tuesday-Saturday and 3.00pm on Sunday. Tickets are £10-12 and available from http://www.rosetheatre.org.uk/events/event/measure-for-measure-by-william-shakespeare-2016-05-10/
Gemma Clough – Mariana/Francisca/Provost
Matthew Darcy – Duke Vincentio
Luke de Belder – Claudio/Friar Thomas
Blake Kubena – Angelo
Simon Rodda – Lucio
Rebecca Rogers – Isabella
Directors – Simon Rodda/Rebecca Rogers
Stage Manager – Bryn Newell
Music – Jack Sudgen
Design – Amy Harris/Rebecca Rogers
Costume Supervisor – Edith Furlong
Lighting Designer – Petre Vocka
Publicity Photographer – Debbie Scanlan
Production Photographer – Joey Goodman
Graphic Design – Joshua Drewe
Programme Design – Luke de Belder
Creative Consultant – Jon Buckeridge