Vincentio in Furs

Measure For Measure, Swan Theatre Stratford, 3 December 2011

The distinctive set dressing of this production offered some clues as to what was in store. The stage floor was black with a partly cobbled surface. A translucent strip curtain hung at the back. Above the stage a light fitting composed of lengths of brass chain draped over a bulb occasionally descended from the flies. Small brass fixtures were placed at regular intervals down the sides of the thrust from which lengths of chain hung down the side of the stage.

In the final few minutes before the house lights went down, pumping music issued from the gallery above the stage, gathering in coherence until the Duke emerged.

Dressed quite flamboyantly, he clicked his fingers to turn on two lights in the recesses at the side of the stage. The “lights” were women posing with S&M styled lamp shades over their heads and they appeared each time the scene was set in the Duke’s office. He lowered his hands and the house lights dimmed at his command.

The Duke looked towards the stage right walkway and summoned Escalus with a wave of his palm, but to his consternation and the audience’s amusement, Escalus appeared on the opposite walkway instead.

The Duke is quite often a subsidiary character to the Isabella/Angelo couple, lurking in the background and merely orchestrating events, rather than standing at their centre.

But the first few moments of this production set a different tone, making the Duke the main character around which the others revolved.

The overtly sensuous decor of the Duke’s palace was rather shocking, because it was more reminiscent of the corruption of the outside world that the new crackdown on vice was meant to eradicate.

The design choices here could have symbolised the corruption and decadence of the state itself. Further hints of this were to appear later.

Angelo (Jamie Ballard) was summoned. He wore a black outfit with a roll neck pullover and a small leather corset around the waist. This looked like another example of decadent corruption infecting the Duke’s court. Its slightly kinky appearance was at odds with Angelo’s outward coldness. On the other hand, it could have been an outward sign that he was inwardly decadent. Or yet again, it could have symbolised the constraint of his professed self-discipline.

Magic

The Duke produced Angelo’s commission from out of nowhere using magic sleight of hand. This attention-seeking behaviour again underlined the Duke’s position as the central character in the play.

Before he departed, the Duke made a great point of stressing his dislike of public acclaim, stating “I do not relish well their loud applause and Aves vehement”. However, the audience laughed at this line because his fur-trimmed coat, magic tricks and general demeanour showed him to be precisely the kind of person who would delight in Aves of any kind.

The following scene (1.2) began with general debauchery behind the translucent curtain accompanied by thumping music. Mistress Overdone and her girls spanked customers, who then emerged in front of the curtain to discuss the current situation in Vienna.

Lucio began to speak, but paused to remove his nipple clamps before continuing. Mistress Overdone told the others about Claudio’s impending execution. After they went off to investigate, Overdone was joined by Pompey who was a stocky, shifty figure with a cigarette permanently stored behind his ear.

The audience reacted instantly to Pompey’s one liners, particularly his animated “Groping for trouts, in a peculiar river”.

The word “houses” was replaced by “brothels” to make clearer sense of Pompey’s news about the demolition of the bordellos. Overdone paused so that her version of the phrase became “houses… of resort”, which made the odd collocation into an almost accidental (possibly euphemistic) comic creation.

Claudio and the pregnant Juliet were brought in by the Provost. Claudio’s explanation of his situation to Lucio saw Mark Quartley provide a bravura display of acting under constraint. Manacled hand and foot, he still managed to use his hands to express his reaction to his impending execution.

The manacles were also faintly reminiscent of the bondage equipment seen in the brothel sequence that opened the scene. This further underscored the idea running through the production that authority was itself corrupt: the constraints of lawful imprisonment were themselves fetishised.

Singing monks brought in a bier at the start of 1.3 and placed it centre stage. One friar remained to accompany it. The cover flew off revealing the Duke underneath, who emerged with a knowing wink to the audience, mouthing “It’s me!” This re-established the Duke as the focus of our attention.

The Duke relished his lengthy explanation of why he had pretended to be travelling abroad. This performance by the Duke meant that his line “Now, pious Sir, you will demand of me, why I do this” caused audience amusement, as the friar appeared to be slightly bored by the Duke’s self-obsession. His professed disdain for idle pleasures seemed comical as he was still wearing his flamboyant clothes.

Novice

A group of nuns entered singing and carried away the bier. One of the nuns stayed behind with the novice Isabella (1.4).

Jodie McNee’s interesting face and interesting voice gave her a distinct presence. However, the deliberate decision to make the Duke the central character meant that she tended to be eclipsed by him. Nevertheless, she did an excellent job of portraying the tension between Isabella’s anger and her desire to passively withdraw from the affairs of the world.

Lucio appeared on the stage right balcony before rushing in at ground level. He spoke to the nun, who kept her vow by refusing to address him. Isabella introduced herself to Lucio and he brought her the bad news about her condemned brother, which she was reluctant to believe.

Lucio found himself resorting to a variety of euphemisms to describe how Claudio had got Juliet pregnant. He plumped for an agricultural metaphor with references to “blossoming” and “foison” culminating in him delving around with his hands, speaking of Claudio’s “full tilth and husbandry”.

Once informed of Claudio’s situation, Isabella’s furrowed brow set off to put things right.

Angelo and Escalus debated the unpermissive new order at the start of act two. He stated plainly that he would willingly submit to the strictures of the law if so required. He paused to order Claudio’s execution before the serious tone of the scene was completely undercut by one of the funniest sequences in the play, which this production picked up and ran with in glorious fashion.

Beginning with Elbow’s comic allusion to his own name, through his malapropisms (benefactors, detest etc.) to the delightfully irreverent anecdote about Elbow’s wife related by the tag team of Pompey and Froth, this sequence provided a welcome interlude.

Pompey and Froth put on a totally unconvincing and hysterically funny act for the inquisitors. Pompey mentioned that Froth’s father had died, upon which the forlorn Froth began ham act his weeping. When Escalus was asked to judge the honesty of Froth’s face, the man exaggeratedly presented himself as harmless and innocent.

Benefactors

Elbow’s frustration boiled over into more malapropisms, at which point Escalus despaired of the whole process and advised Elbow simply to keep an eye on the notorious benefactors before dismissing them with a warning not to appear before him again.

Scene 2.2 began with Angelo rejecting the Provost’s appeal for clemency just before Isabella entered to appeal for the same, accompanied by Lucio.

Angelo sat, then stood, as Isabella became more animated. She shouted at the “tyrant”, but hers was always a very feminine, restrained anger. Angelo looked on without any real trace of interest. Dispassionate and featureless, he bore no trace of any inner turmoil that might have foreshadowed his subsequent outburst of passion.

The turning point in the long exchange, given comic note by Lucio’s words of encouragement, came when Isabella put her palm on Angelo’s chest saying “Go to your bosom”, encouraging him to enquire if it contained any fault similar to Claudio’s. This immediately prompted Angelo’s aside about his sense “breeding” at her words.

For some reason Isabella’s subsequent line containing a hidden bawdy reference to “…fond sickles of the tested gold, or stones…” really stood out.

Angelo requested Isabella visit him again with snappy short sentences that did not disguise his embarrassment. But his soliloquy describing the dilemma caused by his feelings for Isabella was comparatively matter-of-fact.

Angelo was underplayed. Rather than an accident of Ballard’s acting, this could have been a deliberate directorial choice flowing from the clear decision to make the Duke the central character. It was telling that this speech of Angelo’s was followed by more extravagant behaviour by the now disguised Duke.

The Duke entered in a monk’s habit practising his “benedicite” (2.3). He removed his hood and beamed at the audience letting us in on the secret of his disguise, which we had mostly worked out for ourselves already. He recognised the Provost and greeted him by his title, but then immediately cringed when he realised that a visiting friar would not have known him.

The Duke met with Juliet and was uncharacteristically stern with her before announcing that he was going to find Claudio to speak with him as well. He parted with a properly rehearsed and convincing “benedicite”.

Innocence

Angelo prepared to meet Isabella for a second time (2.4). Angelo seemed emotionless in the face of Isabella’s characteristic earnestness. He was more concerned that she might be feigning innocence in not understanding him. If Angelo was a troubled man, then the precise nature and origins of his troubles remained obscure and undeveloped by Ballard’s characterisation.

As Angelo’s true intention became clearer, Isabella lost nothing of her anger nor her forensic intellect. Her “Ignomy in ransom and free pardon are of two houses” showed her to be clear in her insights, despite the stress of the situation.

Isabella’s anger erupted as she told Angelo that she would denounce him. But Angelo’s cool rebuff that no one would believe her was not the calculated response of a devious mastermind.

Claudio was brought up from the cells and chained to one of the small posts at the side of the stage so that the Duke could talk to him disguised as a friar (3.1). Claudio’s resigned simplicity carried over into his similar conversation with his sister Isabella when she visited him, with the Duke listening in.

But the seemingly modest and virtuous attitude that Claudio initially displayed, accepting his death and his sister’s preservation of her virginity soon slipped into him pleading with her to save his life. Isabella launched into a fierce tirade against her brother, at which point the Duke stepped forward to calm them by explaining to Claudio that Angelo had only wanted to test Isabella, and telling Isabella about Mariana and his plan to bring good from bad.

After firing off his list of instructions to Isabella, the Duke retired making a loud exhalation of breath, indicating his relief at narrowly averting calamity.

The brothel reappeared behind the curtain (3.2) and more whipping and kinkiness took place. But this time the constables of the watch turned up and arrested the men.

Elbow brought Pompey forward and the Duke castigated the miscreant. Pompey’s face lit up when he saw Lucio, thinking he would bail him, but Lucio only mocked Pompey. He pulled down on Pompey’s neck brace, which also had S&M touches, joking that his “mettle is the more”.

This reminder of the dog collar nature of Pompey’s restraint caused him to rub himself against Lucio’s leg like a dog. Lucio pushed him off saying “Go to kennel, Pompey, go.”

Disguised

We were then treated to the delicious comedy of Lucio telling the disguised Duke all about the Duke’s peccadilloes, made funnier by the Duke almost let his guard slip at one point. The audience lapped up the braggart’s assumed knowledge of the man he was in fact addressing, and the Duke’s wonderfully restrained defence of himself. The phrase “his use was to put a ducat in her clack-dish” was laden with innuendo.

Lucio’s departure was soon followed by the arrival of Escalus, the Provost with Mistress Overdone under arrest. She tried to assuage Escalaus’ ire by kneeling in front of him and unbuttoning his trousers.

Overdone thought that Lucio had snitched on her, so in return she told Escalus about his dalliance with Kate Keep-down. The Provost keenly took note of the details to pass on to the Duke.

Escalus called on the Provost to send a priest to Claudio to prepare him for death. The Provost pointed at the disguised Duke as a suitable man for the job. Realising that Escalus would most likely recognise his face, the Duke made a great point of turning away from Escalus when speaking to him, even though this sometimes produced a comical result.

Escalus asked him what news there was in the wider world. The Duke’s initial monosyllabic “None” was quickly corrected when he realised that it was an inadequate response, causing him to launch into a series of generalities.

Escalus and the Provost left the Duke alone. He took off his hood and addressed his closing doggerel verse in the scene to the audience. He pointed at us, making us like the angels “on the outward side”. After this the interval came.

A woman held a water jug above her head and slowly poured the contents into a bowl in the form of a living statue. A friar knelt and played the guitar as Mariana pitched gently back and forth on a swing, singing a sad song (4.1).

The Duke was soon joined by Isabella, who began her account of Angelo’s instructions for their assignation. She produced the two keys he had given her using the same sleight of hand technique used by the Duke. This made the audience laugh as it showed a lighter side to Isabella’s character that we had not seen previously, and also hinted that she had come under the Duke’s influence to such an extent that she was now imitating his quirks.

Prompted by this comedy, the audience laughed at Isabella’s mention that Angelo had explained the route to his house twice. An audience fresh back after an interval is often game for a laugh.

Plan

Isabella and Mariana withdrew momentarily to discuss the plan, while the Duke bewailed the fate of greatness, to have “Millions of false eyes” gazing at it, pointing accusingly but affectionately again at the audience.

The Provost opened the grille in the floor to access the prison (4.2) and brought out Pompey to recruit him as a trainee executioner. Abhorson wore a vest that exposed the crude tally marks on his upper arm indicating his dozen or so victims. He was also cross-eyed, which was perhaps a clue as to why he required an assistant.

Abhorson stared disdainfully at Pompey and intoned sonorously that his profession would be discredited by having a bawd among its ranks. His obscure explanation for why his occupation was a “mystery” was spoken slowly and deliberately as if containing clarity and sense.

Claudio was brought out, but Barnadine had refused to appear. The Duke arrived and told the Provost to expect a message regarding Claudio’s pardon. Elbow was the Messenger who brought Angelo’s renewed instructions to proceed with Claudio’s execution.

The Duke instructed the Provost to have Barnadine executed in Claudio’s place, producing a letter with his own ducal seal on it as authority.

Pompey emerged grinning from the trap door (4.3), with an extra-textual “Hello” before telling us how many of his former clients he had found in the prison. He went around pointing at members of the audience, naming them as the various offenders and itemising their offences.

This caused great amusement, particularly when he pointed at a bald man, naming him as “young Drop-heir”, and at a middle-aged woman calling her “wild Half-can”. He also commented (outside the text) about the 400 hundred or so others, meaning the rest of us in the audience.

Abhorson and Pompey called on Barnadine, who popped his head up through a hatch to disdainfully announce that he was sleepy. When he emerged fully, Barnadine was bare-chested with long hair and displayed a faintly roguish, aristocratic bearing that went hand in hand with the disdainful sense of entitlement behind his disregard of the prison regime.

Axe

Barnadine sat on the executioner’s block as the cross-eyed Abhorson raised the large axe ready to strike. Abhorson wavered as he tried to keep the axe in the air, gesturing to Pompey to retrieve the warrant for Barnadine’s execution from his belt. Barnadine rose just before Abhorson let the axe fall onto the block with a thud.

With Barnadine unsuited to execution, the Duke gleefully received the news about the untimely death of Ragozine. The audience laughed at his description of this as “an accident that heaven provides”.

The Duke produced the letters he was to write to Angelo by magic sleight of hand before the Provost returned with Ragozine’s head in bag.

Isabella reacted badly to the Duke’s pretence that Claudio had been executed. She clenched her fists and spat out her four-fold invective, which concluded with her cursing Angelo. Lucio arrived to comfort her and hugged her.

The Duke and Lucio clashed with Lucio once more divulging that he had got a woman pregnant. Insisting that he accompany the friar, Lucio said he would “stick” and each time the Duke took a tentative step backwards, Lucio repeated the word “stick” to indicate that he had latched on.

Angelo and Escalus discussed the Duke’s most recent letter to them arranging a meeting at the city gate (4.4). Angelo’s thoughtful soliloquy, in which he succeeded in convincing himself that Isabella would not speak out against him, was notable for the way the unusual words “unshapes” and “unpregnant” stood out.

The brief scene between the Duke, Friar Peter and Varrius (4.5) was followed swiftly by Isabella and Mariana appearing in the galleries either side of the stage discussing which of them should accuse Angelo (4.6). When Friar Peter returned, the two women appeared on the main stage and he told Isabella to take up her position.

Eagle

The strip curtain was partly bundled together at the ends and lifted up to make way for the Duke. He made a stately entrance through the wide gap in the curtain in his elegant uniform of office accompanied by his men (5.1). The emblem of the Austrian eagle appeared high at the back.

After greeting Escalus and Angelo (and possibly producing a coin from behind someone’s ear), the Duke proceeded onward and Isabella threw herself forward to demand justice. Initially dismissive, the Duke was persuaded to listen and Isabella continued, buoyed up by Lucio’s interventions, which the Duke insisted on silencing. She spat out the word “concupiscible”. The Duke refused to believe her and she was led away to prison.

All this time Angelo looked on with an air of detachment, which was in tune with his phlegmatic character. He managed to crack a smile when Friar Peter informed the Duke that “Friar Lodowick” had sent message that Isabella’s accusations against Angelo were going to be disproved.

Mariana appeared with a black blindfold over her eyes with a crucifix attached to the front. Her riddling statements soon revealed that Angelo was her husband. She unmasked and Angelo admitted having once being betrothed to her. But the Duke continued to act as if he supported him and briefly disappeared. Escalus said he would do his job “thoroughly” which is slight emendation of the text’s “throughly”.

The Duke returned disguised as the friar, while Escalus interrogated Isabella. The Duke once again turned away from Escalus to avoid detection, but soon found himself being accused by Escalus and insulted by Lucio, who held his lapels like a lawyer to accuse the friar of insulting the Duke.

Lucio grabbed hold of the friar and put him across his knee and spanked him on the bottom, culminating in his hood coming off and the Duke appearing in full view. Lucio immediately panicked and got down on his knees begging for forgiveness.

Angelo accepted his guilt, and the Duke arranged for him to marry Mariana. He warmly greeted Isabella with the subterfuge now uncovered. But the returning Angelo was condemned to death despite Mariana’s and Isabella’s pleas.

The Duke asked the Provost to bring in Barnadine, but he also brought in the hooded Claudio closely followed by Juliet and her now newborn baby.

The unhooding of Claudio produced general relief in Isabella and Angelo. It remained only for Kate Keep-down to be ordered to marry Lucio for the loose ends to be all tied-up.

In keeping with the jolly tone of the production, the Duke’s offer of marriage to Isabella was warmly (yet for textual reasons wordlessly) accepted.

The performance ended with a Globe-style jig and great audience applause.

Conclusions

The production was thoroughly enjoyable, despite prizing visual style over dramatic substance.

The overshadowing of Angelo by the Duke meant that the comic aspects of the play were accentuated at the expense of its darker side.

In particular, we were offered no real psychological insights into the character of Angelo, who is usually the gripping and tortured centre of the drama.

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