Measure for Measure

Muritai School Yard, Eastbourne, Wellington

16/02/2010 - 20/02/2010

NZ Fringe Festival 2010

Production Details

Dark Comedy gives Fringe Fix for Bard Addicts  
For the fifth year Shakespeare fans will get a chance to feed their passion in the Fringe with Eastbourne’s Bard in the Yard production of his dark adult comedy, Measure for Measure.  

Measure for Measure’s themes are uncannily up to date which probably explains its increasing popularity worldwide. Recent productions have explored themes such as corrupt government and the misuse of power, the balance between mercy and justice, the dangers of fundamentalism and extremism, and the state’s role in controlling sexual behaviour.

“I’m surprised Wellington audiences haven’t seen much of this play,” says director, John Marwick. “It includes some of Shakespeare’s most powerful scenes, most beautiful language, most thought provoking themes, and some lesser-known but fascinating and even bizarre characters; a combination that we couldn’t resist”.

The play is set in a city that has declined into moral decay. The Duke steps aside leaving his puritanical deputy, Angelo to clean up the city while he secretly observes, disguised as a friar. Angelo resorts to archaic laws to enforce strict standards of morality; the brothels are closed and fornicators beheaded. Young Claudio has got his fiancée pregnant and is condemned to death. His sister Isabella, just about to become a nun, pleads Claudio’s case with Angelo. But Isabella faces a religious and moral dilemma when the deputy’s lust is inflamed and he offers Claudio’s life in exchange for her virginity. How the disguised Duke contrives to trick and then confront an increasingly corrupt Angelo is the central story of the play. But Shakespeare’s also populates his city with wonderfully eccentric and funny characters and seasons the bleak and serious side with comedy and love.

Marwick has set the play in late nineteenth century Europe – the time and look of the Moulin Rouge movie. “A story about appearance and reality fits well into those times,” he says. “On the surface a very respectable society but with a sordid underbelly.”  

Measure for Measure will be the fourteenth annual Shakespeare produced by Eastbourne’s prize-winning Butterfly Creek Theatre Troupe and Marwick’s eleventh. He has attracted a large cast of experienced Shakespearean actors both locally and from all over Wellington. 

The production is outdoors on the specially built school yard stage but moves into the adjoining hall in bad weather. Audiences should dress warmly. Bookings are recommended because the short season may books out. 

Measure for Measure 
7.30pm Tuesday 16th – Saturday 20th February
Muritai School Yard, Muritai Road, Eastbourne.
Tickets: Adults $15, Supergold and student cards $12,
School children and Fringe addict cards $10

Online bookings:
Phone bookings: 0832 77790. 
Sales: Rona Gallery, Eastbourne  

2hrs 35 mins, incl. interval

Intentions honoured in intensifying drama

Review by John Smythe 19th Feb 2010

Inclement weather brings the Bard in from the Yard for its third performance, so we are denied the feel of night falling around this ever-darkening social problem* play. Who knows if its first Globe Theatre performance (1604) enjoyed that aspect. No matter; the play stands up very well to simple staging in basic hall lighting.

Written (to the best of my knowledge) between All’s Well That Ends Well set in France and Florence, and Othello set in Venice and Cyprus, Measure For Measure, set in a Vienna still very influenced by Rome – given the names Shakespeare gives his characters – also explores the universal themes of love, lust, honour and moral hypocrisy.

Design-wise, director John Marwick has gone for an early 20th century feel, with the Duke in a squat topper and the women un-bustled (excellent costuming by Carol Thompson and Pip Weston) and an art nouveau touch to the decoration of the two three-pronged mobile flats that are variously turned to create different settings and moods (designed by Elspeth Harris).

All hinges, however, on the text and the way the characters and their scenes are played out and I am happy to say every member of Marwick’s cast has a clear understanding of their intentions and a secure trust in both the Bard’s language and our capacity to ‘get it’ without their having to overstate the message or ‘camp up’ their roles.

Damian Reid is a strong Vincentio, Duke of Vienna. Aware he has been a bit lax in enforcing their strict laws against fornication, he claims to be off on a diplomatic mission, appointing the strict judge Angelo as his deputy.  Fortunately he hangs around, disguised as a friar, to monitor how this moralistic young man will handle his elevation to absolute power.  

Lee Dowsett finds an emotional immaturity in Angelo that makes his all-too-human fallibility very recognisable. His insistence on inflicting the law which “hath not been dead tho’ it hath slept” while wrestling with unfamiliar feelings of love – or is it just lust? – towards the a noviciate nun who pleads with him, therefore becomes more interesting than if he were just a malevolent prig.

Angelo has imprisoned Claudio (Patch Lambert) for getting his intended wife Juliet (Elizabeth Bruce) pregnant before they’ve actually married. Using this case to signal the law will now be strictly enforced, Angelo sentences him to death. It is Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who attempts to intercede and for whom Angelo falls.

Elspeth Harris is superbly centred and focused as Isabella, drawing us into every beat of her experience as Angelo abuses his position by setting her virginity, to be taken by him, as the price of sparing Claudio’s life (the first ‘measure for measure’). We cannot help but ask “what would I do?” as she confronts her moral dilemma and compels our empathy at every step, all too aware that her submitting to Angelo could get her pregnant too, and bastard children and their unwed mothers have no rights or support in this society.

As Lucio, the suave ‘man about town’ who first alerts Isabella to her brother’s problem, then proves to be a two-faced scoundrel as he defames the Duke to ‘Friar Lodowick’ and vice-versa, Will Clannachan has a charm that’s redolent of Peter O’Toole.

The remaining cast align around these central characters with a clear commitment to honouring the play’s objectives, with Sandra Gillespie (Escala), Fran Baldock (Mistress Overdone), Florence McFarlane (Pompey), Phil Saxby (Provost), Pip Weston (Francisca), Philippa Nicoll (Mariana, Barry Mawer (Abhorson) and Peter Baldock (Barnadine) acquitting themselves especially well.

The obligatory comic interludes notwithstanding, it is the intensifying drama that makes the production most memorable. When the clever stratagem designed to save Claudio without Isabella’s losing her honour goes awry, Duke Vincentio plays a ruthless endgame to get the full measure of Angelo’s hypocrisy. It plays out beautifully in this production, mesmerising the audience with its unpredictability before the hard-earned happy ending is achieved.

The first and last question one has to ask, with productions of classics especially, is: do we get the play? In this case, we certainly do.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
*Many commentators interpret ‘problem play’ as meaning it is dramaturgically problematical. I have always taken it to mean it dramatises a social problem, e.g. of class discrimination (All’s Well That Ends Well), moral hypocrisy (Measure For Measure), etc. Any thoughts on this?
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

A measure of black comedy from Bard

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 19th Feb 2010

Although the term black comedy wasn’t around in Shakespeare’s day it is probably the most apt way to describe Measure for Measure with its mix of dark undertones and comedy. Many commentators have labelled it a “problem” play because of this mix, yet the darkness and humour add depth and texture to the play.

And although the over-written ending takes forever to resolve all the mistaken identities and love interests and the main characters turn out to be somewhat contradictory it is nevertheless an engaging story intelligently brought to life by director John Marwick and his strong cast.

While they need to loosen up and relax and give the action more aggression and the humour more comedy, through clear delivery of the lines and a good understanding of the language and complexities of the text, the story of Duke Vincentio and the decadence of Vienna slowly unfolds.

When the Duke (Damian Reid) decides to leave Vienna he puts a high ranking nobleman, Angelo (Lee Dowsett), in charge. Deciding to clean the city up, Angelo throws all fornicators into jail including Claudio (Patch Lambert) and his pregnant girlfriend Juliet (Elizabeth Bruce). Lucio (Will Clannachan) tries to get Claudio released but fails and so asks Claudio’s virgin sister Isabella (Elspeth Harris) to intervene. Only when Isabella succumbs to Angelo’s sexual demands will he listen. 

The Duke, disguised as a Friar, then returns to see how things are going. Not impressed with what he sees, he reveals himself and restores order. Interspersed through the story are comic scenes with Mistress Overdone (Fran Baldock) and Pompey (Florence McFarlane) that add light relief to the more serious moments in the play. 

In the lead role of the Duke Damian Reid is excellent, bringing presence and authority to the role that is totally engaging. Elspeth Harris’s also gives a fine performance as Isabella, totally convincing and believable and Lee Dowsett’s icy disdain contrasts well with his genuine feelings of emotion for Isabella.

The only aspect of the production that didn’t work was the setting. Although described in the publicity material as being fin de siècle Vienna, contrasting the Duke’s court with the brothels and prisons of the city’s underbelly with music, costumes and sets in the style of Toulouse Lautrec’s art nouveau world of the Moulin Rouge, this was never really apparent.  

But as it’s the language that is important with Shakespeare this production still comes across as a winner.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council
Waiematā Local Board logo