BATS Theatre, The Propeller Stage, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

01/09/2015 - 05/09/2015

Production Details

New Director puts social change at the heart of her work in Wellington 

“Who will believe thee, Isabel?”

Vienna needs a saviour. In a city where prisons, convents and brothels are policed by a corrupt regime one woman is tested beyond measure.

Will Isabella save her brother’s life?
Will feminism win?
Will Shakespeare’s most problematic play have a happy ending?

Hilary Penwarden, member of theatre company The Bacchanals, returned from London inspired to try directing – and has ended up founding a new theatre company with social change at its heart.

Penwarden recently returned from Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand’s Emerging Theatre Practitioners’ Programme, a three month internship at the Globe Theatre in London. Previously focused on acting, the experience inspired her to try directing, and while still overseas she chose William Shakespeare’s famously problematic Measure for Measure for her first production.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Network consulted for advice on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure  

While exploring the text before rehearsals, Penwarden realised that she needed help in addressing some of the more problematic aspects of its portrayal of sexual violence, and approached the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network [SAPN]. The cast has been able to benefit from advice from cast member and SAPN co-ordinator Fiona McNamara.

“I’m particularly grateful for the supportive relationship we’ve set up with the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network where we can call on them for advice, as this play is notoriously problematic in its depiction of sexual politics. In turn we can raise awareness for the outstanding work they are doing in our community,” says Penwarden.

Working with SAPN made Penwarden think about other plays she would like to work on from a feminist viewpoint – and other organisations with whom she would like to work.

“There are so many great organisations with whom collaboration could enrich our work as theatre artists,” says Penwarden. “And for a relatively small city, Wellington has a solid history of incredible theatre. The fact that anyone with a good idea can put on a show at a professional theatre venue like BATS is just something you don’t get in other capitals around the world.”

The desire to keep producing work has led Penwarden to found a company, Friends for Juliet, about which Penwarden says, “We are using theatre as a vehicle for social change. Friends for Juliet want to use text based theatre to help make a platform for those voices that are underrepresented (on stage and off stage) and encourage intersectional feminist virtues. As our first show, Measure for Measure is really rich in its exploration of humanity and I can’t think of a more exciting project to be tackling as a new director.”

BATS Theatre 
7pm, 1 September – 5 September
TICKETS: Full: $18/Concession: $14/Groups 6+: $13/Students: $10 on Wednesday 

10% of profits from this production will be donated to the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network. 

Angelo – James Cain
Juliet/Barnadine – Alice May Connolly
Francisca/Mariana – Brigid Costello
Provost – Keagan Carr Fransch
Lucio – Hayden Frost
Claudio – Andrew Goddard
Duke Vincentio – David Lawrence
Escalus – Fiona McNamara
Isabella – Ania Upstill 

Costume Design by Hilary Penwarden
Costumes constructed by Charlotte Simmonds
Music by Amand Gerbault-Gaylor 

Theatre ,

Presented with a passionate intensity

Review by Laurie Atkinson 04th Sep 2015

“With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” said Christ in The Sermon on the Mount and with Measure for Measure Shakespeare was in a Shavian mood for a theatrical debate about morality.

He mixes melodrama and some dark comedy and then sets it in far away Vienna to stress that it is the morality of the story that interests him, though the sinners and vices portrayed in the play of this sinful city are purely Elizabethan English.

But you wouldn’t really know it from this seemingly sinless city which has exiled Pompey Bum, Froth and Elbow and reduces Mistress Overdone to just another meths drinker [More]


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Brave, ambitious, artful

Review by Lori Leigh 03rd Sep 2015

The ‘human capacity for contradictions’ lies at the heart of Hilary Penwarden’s production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure on at BATS Theatre this week. The play itself is contradictory in nature, defying genre. Though classified as a comedy in the First Folio, it is typically referred to now as a ‘problem play’ due to the many speeches about death and an uncomfortable ending; yes, it ends with marriage but also with forgiveness and reconciliation. For almost a century this ‘problem play’ was rarely performed; but due to its contemporary social themes of sex, power, and corruption, it is now one of the most popular and frequently performed Shakespeare plays. 

Drawn to these themes, Penwarden has assembled a talented cast for an intelligent production. A lot of the actors double roles, and they work very well together as a tight ensemble who have a strong command of the language in the play. James Cain, as Angelo, in particular captures the beautiful eloquence of the verse.  

Cuts have been made and roles combined (Lucio and Pompey are merged) to make the play fit nicely into a 2-hour running time. I’m surprised at how well these bold cuts work.  What is lost for me (perhaps due in part to the condensation) is a larger political landscape of Vienna and an impression of it as a place. This is often key to productions of Measure for Measure. I feel some sense of the darkness of this world is fundamental to understanding any interpretation of the play.

Though I miss an evocation of the world of Vienna and the lack of a formal comic subplot with Elbow, the Dogberry-like constable, this production hits the mark with dark comedy. Hayden Frost as Lucio (with strokes of Pompey) has impeccable comic timing and works wit like a charm. I also enjoy the metatheatrical humour David Lawrence draws from Duke Vicentio’s play-acting of Friar Lodowick. I always feel the Duke must have moments of relishing his disguise, and Lawrence does this well. He also excels at connecting with the audience, and I love the moment in the final act when he points to a man in the audience as a potential “better husband” for Mariana than her Angelo.

Other memorable bits of comic business include the severed stand-in head for Claudio. In one scene, it is dumped casually on Angelo’s table in a plastic shopping bag and met with huge audience laughter at the grotesqueness. I laugh, but then realise it is a pretty poignant metaphor for human life as commodity. 

The great virtue of this production is that it makes me think, a lot, and as a director /lecturer /researcher of Shakespeare I’m coming to this production having already done a lot of thinking on this play. It’s the first time I’ve noticed the connection between the ‘coldness’ of Angelo that is so oft referred to and repeated in the play and the word ‘justice’ or ‘just/ice’.

Both Escalus and the Provost – played brilliantly by Fiona McNamara and Keagan Carr Fransch respectively – are female. This was a clever interpretive choice, hinting at the injustice of women passed over for higher positions of leadership. What would a female-ruled Vienna look like (i.e. if the Duke had chosen Escalus as proxy rather than Angelo) is a very interesting question indeed.

What I wanted from this production was some of these thought-provoking choices to be pushed further/deeper and translate into feeling. For me, this was the contradiction within the production—too much intellect, too little heart. The stakes were not high or played high enough, and they are meant to be life or death, heaven or hell.

For example, I leave the production unclear about the value to Isabella of her virginity or life choices. Usually one of the most moving in the play, the scene between Isabella (Ania Upstill) and her brother Claudio (Andrew Goddard) in prison – and it’s the only one they get—conveys little emotion or connection between the performers. Why is she not torn apart here? To this end, the reveals and climaxes of 5.1 hardly feel like high points at all – especially Isabella’s kneeling for Angelo. No one seems very hurt or heartbroken here, and none of the choices seem hard.  

Finally, the moment I find most jarring is Isabella’s reaction to the Duke’s marriage proposal at the end of the play. In Shakespeare’s play, Isabella does not respond to the Duke’s proposal. Many recent and feminist productions of the play have used her silence to indicate a reluctance or resistance to the patriarchal systems in place in Vienna. Is the Duke’s proposal just another male attempting to dominate Isabella, who has, after all, committed herself to life as a nun? Here Isabella exchanges her rosary for a wedding ring and smoothly accepts the Duke’s proposal.

Isabella’s acceptance of the Duke is a completely valid choice and probably more in line with Early Modern thinking, but nowhere in this production has the choice been seeded. Here the proposal is meet with awkward audience laughter. Two lines belonging to the Duke are also given to Isabella in order to provide her with a verbal response to his offer.

Juliet Stevenson, who played Isabella for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983, said of the silence in the text, “But you know, there isn’t a fixed end to a play. The script ends. The words run out. But the ending–that’s something that has to be renegotiated every performance.”  I wanted an earned ending, one that sustained the speechless dialect between Isabella and the Duke as is in the text. It’s a problem play, but not one that necessarily needs solving by reassigning lines. Ambiguity would have been much more powerful. 

Still, what a brave, ambitious choice to tackle this play as a young director. I really appreciate the care that went into this production (i.e. even adding a trigger warning for sexual violence – often something that is missing from productions of Measure for Measure). Get to BATS this week to see Shakespeare’s great piece about the abuse of power artfully staged with thought and integrity.


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