BATS Theatre
August 5-15 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

Measure for Measure is known as a ‘problem play’, as it holds comedy and tragedy in unequal balance, and director Alexandra Lodge certainly seems to be confused. Having seen the Three Spoon Theatre production at BATS, I am no clearer as to what she considers this play to be about.

The slick introductory dance to the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ (the all-time favourite single of the late great John Peel) seems to suggest it is a play about young people and sex. Well, that will certainly grab audience attention, but as the play progresses she turns her consideration to themes of justice, compassion, leadership, empathy, wisdom, experience and power.

She begins with a blank canvas. All the cast are dressed in white which apparently represents ‘the reaction to anatomy – the idea of cleanliness and outward appearance’ – they might just as well be anemic smurfs or sperm. The patchily-lit set with its exposed pipes reveals the internal plumbing complete with dripping, gurgling, belching and squelching sound effects signifying the visceral and sexual content. It also resembles scaffolding involved in the building process as steps and levels provide delineations and boundaries.

We are reminded ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall’ or (in the words of another writer a couple of centuries later) that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Duke Vincentio (a sardonic and softly spoken James Davenport) pretends to leave his city and places the ‘precise’ Angelo in charge. Richard Falkner plays him with commendable exactitude that allows no room for manoeuvre.

When he drags Isabella (Charlotte Bradley) down to his level and makes her kneel in supplication, her heartfelt cry of ‘To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?’ is emphasised by shadowy light illuminating her anguish. They dance a tentative dos-a-dos like the sun and rain on a weather vane; they can never share the space because their ideals are poles apart.

Meanwhile, the Duke oversees all, frequently standing above or apart as he is granted the omniscience of an Oberon observing the necessarily messy and human foibles of his Viennese subjects. He manipulates the action and while his bed trick is a good plan and well explained, the head trick is crass and insensitive. Dialogue cuts and stage positioning make him unquestionably the pivotal figure, but his motives remain obscure.

The poetry and tragedy of this play (how often they go together) are simply beautiful. Charlotte Bradley’s calm and gentle yet firm Isabella contrasts perfectly with her brother Claudio (Eli Kent) who is all fluttery hands and jittery passions. One or the other is nearly always on stage and their scene together is the moving counterpoint of the performance. Claudio is imprisoned for fornication with Juliet (Clare Wilson) and his life will only be spared by Angelo if Isabella yields her virginity to him.

This scene contains some of the most moving language ever written, but they opt out for a cheap laugh instead answering ‘Were it but my life, I’d throw it down for your deliverance as frankly as a pin’ with a flippant ‘Thanks, dear Isabel’. The difficulty is that the comedy and the tragedy hang so finely in the balance, but they shouldn’t intrude on each other. Claudio still gets to conjure shivers with his ‘Ay, but to die, and go we know not where’ speech, but Isabella’s compassion is undermined.

When played straight, this is far more powerful, such as the beautiful final scene in which she kneels beside Mariana (Sophie Hambleton) to beg for the life of the man who has wronged her. This highlights the beatific soul of the women, all of whom are spurned and abused throughout, including the rapaciously sexy Mistress Overdone (Ally Garrett). It is unusual to see an actor wearing glasses on stage, but it works just fine here; if eyes are the windows of the soul, then Isabella’s are reflective.

The severe pruning leaves the comic characters with too heavy a burden. Whereas Lucio (Edward Watson) is expressive in a whisper, Pompey (Paul Harrop) speaks too fast. True, he is meant to be a jabberer, but many of his words are lost. Elbow (Thomas McGrath) makes excellent work of the physical comedy and muddled expressions, but he could temper his performance with less shouting, while Provost (Nick Zwart) bumbles and stumbles around the stage like a simpleton.

Alexandra Lodge has chosen to mock the theatrical conventions such as the eavesdropping, the mistaken identity, the false reporting, and the reveal scenes common to most Shakespearean comedies. This introduces distance from the audience resulting in a lack of engagement in the dignified demand for justice.

Many of the scenes instantly recall other works rather than creating their own integrity, and the play doesn’t stand alone so much as become a composite of Shakespeare’s greats. This is possibly because the editing simply went for the highlights and ignored the structure. It hangs together as a collection of (admittedly very good) vignettes but lacks cohesion.

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Credit to the cast and crew must be given for the fact that less than half an hour after finishing one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays, they are back to tackle another with commendable relish. Both of these are massive oeuvres and a lot of hard work has clearly gone into attempting to whittle them down to an attention-challenged modern audience.

Although the editing is slightly suspect, director Ralph McCubbin Howell strikes a far better balance with Romeo and Juliet. The young leads are not so much star-crossed lovers, as self-destructive teenage time-bombs, but it is great to see them being portrayed by people who understand the exuberance of youth.

It is easy to believe that Juliet (Claire Wilson) is 13 as she morphs from bashful and bemused to defiant and determined in the space of an evening. She displays her subtle humour in the waking ‘It was the nightingale and not the lark’ scene and is a worthy partner to Romeo’s (Eli Kent) passions.

The Montague mob are adept at juvenile shenanigans with overtones of smut, alcohol, vomit, and ludicrous lovelorn poetry. Benvolio (Jack Sergent-Shadbolt) is almost unbearably cute with his hang-dog loyalty, whereas Mercutio (Allan Henry) is brash and boorish – he is superb in his too cool for school persona with melodramatic gestures.

His death scene is quick and realistic although far from painless. All the sombre moments are strong, especially the episode in the tomb which can often drag on but is here played with a chilling lack of hyperbole, aided by minimal lighting (Rachel Marlow).

Eli Kent is the darling of the drama student crowd if the girls in the audience were anything to go by. High-pitched squeals and sycophantic giggling met his every utterance, like a character from Happy Days. To his credit he didn’t milk these banal responses and managed to keep the production enjoyable for all – unlike his teenaged fan-club.

The preppy look of the Montague’s cardigans, cricket jumpers and waistcoats also recalls 1950s America and the production owes more to Sondheim than Shakespeare. When they encounter the Capulets, led by the dangerous and sexy Tybalt (Dominic de Souza) the stylish fight-scenes (choreographed by Ricky Dey) are well-executed but I keep expecting them to break into song.

The cuts make the mood changes more sudden which befits the fickle nature of adolescence but threatens to lose depth. Friar Lawrence (Jonny Potts) is given an enlarged role (including some lines surplus to the original play) which alters the intent. It becomes not coincidence that leads to the deaths but criminal negligence. Friar Lawrence is worldly, cynical and highly culpable.

There is no exploration of the motives of the adults in this production. Charlotte Bradley (in the antithesis of her earlier role) is a shrieking shrewish Lady Capulet, while Prince Escalus (Thomas McGrath) just appears to turn up and shout. Jean Sergent indicates that she would revel in the complete and complex role of the Nurse. As it is, with so many of her speeches deleted, she contents herself with expressing one thing with her words and another with her eyes.

Paris (Aaron Baker), Juliet’s suitor preferred for her by her parents, is a pathetic dupe and there is no hint of his munificence. The fact that we don’t feel sorry for him at all allows us to concentrate on other aspects but it lacks some of the rich tapestry of the tragedy. I suppose we can’t be expected to think about more than one thing at once.

It’s a well-enough known story that explanations are largely unnecessary, but whereas this play is often concerned with how a community has ripped itself apart, this Shakespeare-lite 20/20 production is distilled entirely to the dead young folk. It’s Romeo and Juliet for Generation X.