Thursday, August 22, 2013

“Some Rise By Sin, And Some By Virtue Fall”

On our first day at The Stratford Festival, we attended an evening performance of William Shakespeare’s “Measure For Measure”. It was my first exposure to “Measure For Measure”; the play is very seldom staged in the United States.

I was riveted by the onstage proceedings for three hours; my attention never waned. Scene by scene, I could hardly wait to see what would happen next. However, my fascination may have had more to do with an encounter with new material than with the production itself.

The plot of “Measure For Measure” is very complicated, filled with comedy, cruelty, deception, intrigue—and death. The audience laughs at the wickedness of the characters one moment, and is appalled by the wickedness of the characters the next. There is a great deal of low comedy in “Measure For Measure”, yet there is a great deal of tragedy, too, despite the contrived and unconvincing “happy” ending, surely the weakest part of the play (and probably the reason for the play’s relative neglect). I suspect it may be near-impossible for a director to capture the right tone of the work.

In some ways, the production was unquestionably a success.

First, the production was beautifully designed—indeed, it was the only design success of the eight Stratford productions we attended. The stage design, the costume design, the lighting design: all were exceptional. Moreover, the production had its own unique “look”, a quality I believe to be a prerequisite of successful stage design.

Second, the story was very lucidly presented—which cannot have been easy, given the contorted plot provided by Shakespeare. As pure traffic cop, the director did a fine job with the plot strands, keeping everything moving and heading in the right direction, the main artery always flowing, yet with ample opportunity for ingress and egress from secondary pathways.

Third, the character acting, by and large, was vivid and colorful. “Measure For Measure” requires an enormous cast of actors, most in small roles, and much of the character acting in the Stratford “Measure For Measure” was exceptional, even memorable.

Other aspects of the production were less admirable.

Accents were all over the place. Primary cast members were very uneven. Comic scenes, as a general rule, were overplayed; tragic scenes, as a general rule, were underplayed.

And then there was that matter of tone . . .

The production, simply put, lacked a clear and consistent tone. It was as if the company were performing two Shakespeare plays at once, alternating scenes from a Shakespeare comedy with scenes from a Shakespeare tragedy.

The director was Martha Henry, one of Canada’s most acclaimed stage actresses. Henry enjoys a near-legendary stature in Canada, a stature akin to that enjoyed by Julie Harris or Rosemary Harris in the U.S.

Last summer, we had seen Henry’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” at The Shaw Festival. In that production, the idealism of Ibsen’s characters had been removed, a stratagem that had sharply constricted the depth and range and appeal of the play.

I believe something similar was at work in Henry’s “Measure For Measure”: an accentuation of the negative.

The nobility of Isabella failed to register, which turned her into a hectoring, indecisive bore. The finer qualities of the Duke were de-emphasized, which gave him a far more disreputable rub than Shakespeare surely intended. Angelo, Claudio and Lucio were fundamentally portrayed as sleazes, rendering their characters far less complex (and far less sympathetic) than the text warranted.

At the end of the play, when multiple marriages are arranged, the viewer is not supposed to mutter to himself, “I cannot believe ANYONE would agree to marry ANY of these individuals”—yet such was precisely my thought as the final nuptial merry-go-round was played out onstage.

It is possible there is no one alive capable of directing “Measure For Measure” to a high standard. It is a rich, fascinating play, but it remains a play that does not cohere—and the final scene seems tacked on from a lesser author’s work. I suspect even Tyrone Guthrie, were he alive, would find “Measure For Measure” beyond his talents.

The Stratford Festival gave the material a good shot—so good, in fact, that “Measure For Measure” was the sole Stratford production we attended that I wish I had been able to see a second time.

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