Throughout Measure for Measure, various characters will ask themselves or each other, “Is there no remedy?” The invariable response: None. It has long seemed that one might make the same inquiry and answer of the play itself. From the Restoration to the Victorian era to our own time, directors, actor-managers, and playwrights have made changes or gross elisions in an effort to rescue this most problematic of “problem plays.” Certainly, there’s much to reconcile—a tragic first half with a comic second, jumbled characterizations, prickly sexual politics, bawdy interludes, and a famously unsatisfactory ending. If the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production, which just wrapped a two-week run at St. Ann’s Warehouse, doesn’t resolve all the play’s contradictions (and there’s little evidence it aims to), it does provide an impressively coherent and joyful rendition.
Measure for Measure‘s first recorded airing was a command performance for King James, staged at Whitehall on December 26, 1604, but was possibly first produced in April 1604 to reopen the Globe post-plague. The play opens in Vienna as its ruler Duke Vincentio announces his plan to absent himself from the city and leave its government to the straitlaced Angelo, “a man whose blood/Is very snow-broth,” or in the words of the rascal Lucio (the wastrelish Colin Hurley), “it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice.” Angelo enforces a rather draconian system of family values, reviving a cobwebbed law punishing fornication with death. He makes an example of Claudio, a nobleman’s son who has impregnated his fiancée. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella (the fresh-faced Edward Hogg), a prospective nun, comes to plead for her brother’s life, Angelo finds himself extraordinarily roused. “This virtuous maid subdues me quite,” he murmurs. So he suggests a fiendish bargain—he’ll free Claudio if Isabella will commit the same crime Claudio’s accused of. Angelo thoughtfully offers himself as chief accessory.
Perhaps we’re no less prudish than our ancestors, for Angelo’s proposal still shocks. Nevertheless, in these more permissive times, it’s difficult to sympathize with Isabella when she prefers her brother’s death to one tumble with Angelo (particularly when Angelo is played by the toothsome Liam Brennan). Isabella’s cry, “Then, Isabel, live chaste, and brother die/More than our brother is our chastity,” somewhat lacks for fraternal feeling.
Director John Dove (his official title is the prepossessing “master of play”) steers a neat course between the emotionally foreign and the familiar. He affords insight into Isabella’s plight, but allows us amusement, perhaps even a touch of pity, at her extreme uprightness. Dove offers this Measure for Measure as an “original practices” production, one that hews closely, though by no means slavishly, to the stage mechanics of Shakespeare’s day. Hand-stitched costumes clothe an all-male cast; candles (with just a bit of help from electric lights) illumine the nearly propertyless stage; an ensemble of hautbois, dulcimer, Jew’s harp, and viol accompanies the action and the period dance.
Credit Mark Rylance, who also acts the role of Duke Vincentio, with coining the term “original practices” and developing the method. The Globe’s artistic director since its inception in 1996, Rylance will soon hand the job off to the less felicitously named but well-qualified Dominic Dromgoole. Under Rylance’s stewardship, the Globe transformed from a quixotic venture (why exactly would we want to reconstruct a Shakespearean playhouse on the South Bank?) to a destination theater, playing to sold-out crowds and garnering enviable reviews each summer season. Rylance alternated Shakespeare plays with those of the Bard’s contemporaries and Elizabethan stagings with more modern ones. He zigzagged from all-male to all-female to mixed-gender casts and snagged himself some plum roles along the way—Olivia, Cleopatra, Hamlet, Richard II. This American circuit of Measure for Measure marks something of a farewell tour for Rylance, and his performance as the Duke pays fitting tribute to his skills both as thespian and theatermaker.
The Duke himself is no mean actor-manager. Though he proclaims his intention to leave Vienna, he actually means to disguise himself and observe Angelo’s governance. His motivation is twofold. He desires the people’s love and would rather that another man cure Vienna of its vices. He’s also curious to see if Angelo will remain quite so principled once endowed with power. “Lord Angelo is precise,” observes the Duke, “scarce confesses/That his blood flows, or that his appetite/Is more to bread than stone, hence shall we see/If power change purpose, what our Seemers be.” Of course, the Duke is more a “seemer” than even Angelo, but he never receives his comeuppance. As much as Shakespeare hates a hypocrite, he loves a good actor.
In the costume of the Friar, the Duke delights in playacting, pretense, and setting plots in motion. Rylance endows the role with so many varied strains—diffidence, delight, foolishness, cunning, ennui—and yet he harmonizes them. Even behind thick
glasses and beneath a cowl, he wrings more laughs from a pause than most comic actors do from a punchline. He cultivates
a rare relationship with the audience, acknowledging us, confiding in us, bidding us share in his merriment. We forgive him even for withholding comfort from Isabella, and when he ends the play with an unanticipated proposal of marriage to her, we find ourselves hoping, for her happiness as much as his, that she