POWER CORRUPTS and the repression of sexuality produces not virtue but demons that lead to the warping of human relationships. In a sexually and politically repressive society the stage is set for the perversion of both human behaviour and of justice.
This is the world of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure which is to be staged in the Black Box Theatre by Galway’s Theatrecorp, and directed by Max Hafler, next week.
Although its title is well known, in terms of its plot and production history, this late work by The Bard is among his least famous. That, however, is one of the reasons why Max wanted to stage it.
“I’ve always really liked it,” he tells me during our Thursday morning conversation. “I’ve been in the play as an actor and I’ve wanted to direct this for a long time. It’s very modern in that it deals with issues such as sexual hypocrisy and how in times of crisis it is the poor who get punished while the rich don’t.”
Measure for Measure, written between 1601 and 1608, is classed among Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ in that it does not fit into the then accepted genres of comedy, tragedy, or history.
“It’s a tragi-comedy,” says Max. “There are some scenes that are unbelievably hilarious and some are unbelievably dark.”
In refusing to be bound by the genre restrictions of his day, and in combining and traversing genres in plays like Measure for Measure and also Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare should be seen as breaking new ground for both theatre and writers. In that sense, such works should not be seen as ‘problems’.
“That is true, its mix of tragedy and comedy is looking forward to the Jacobean comedies,” says Max. “It has been said, and this would be an academically accepted fact, that the writer Thomas Middleton helped Shakespeare write a few scenes of Measure for Measure. It’s interesting that Middleton later went on to write a work on corruption which also features a duke who tests his people with laws.”
Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it
Max sees another reason as to why the play could be seen as a ‘problem’. It is one of Shakespeare’s most morally ambiguous works providing no easy answers and, in some cases, no neat resolutions.
Duke Vincentio of Vienna is about to leave the city for a time so he temporarily hands power over to Angelo. However the duke actually disguises himself as a monk so he can spy on his corrupt and prudish official.
Angelo is determined to close the brothels and place heavy legal restrictions on sexual activity and freedom and this leads to the arrest of Claudio, whose girlfriend Juliet has become pregnant out of wedlock.
Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is about to become a nun, comes to plead for his release. Angelo however takes advantage of this, saying he will let Claudio live if she agrees to have sex with him. The only thing that stands between the corruption of Angelo and what he plans to inflict on Isabella, Claudio, and Juliet, is for the duke to drop his disguise and restore order and justice. Nothing though, will be that simple.
“I think the issue of it being a problem play also comes from it having a lot of morally filthy characters,” says Max. “All the main characters are unable to cope with their sexual feelings because they consider having such feelings immoral and bad.
“The play addresses the issue of what happens when you have a repressive society, sexually and politically. At its heart is a boy who makes a girl pregnant and who will be put to death for that, in order to be made an example of.
“As well as sexual hypocrisy there is also the theme of injustice - that you can be innocent and have been abused, and not be believed; and the compromising way in justice is sometimes reached.”
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall
In Measure for Measure, Angelo seeks to restrict citizens’ sexual behaviour but uses his power to force others to obey his own lusts. But is he a villain or a misunderstood individual?
“He is a villain in that he does a terrible thing but in our production he is an understandable villain,” says Max. “He is a young man who has power thrust upon him and finds it incredibly challenging. He is priggish and repressed and arrogant. He’s not at home with himself.
“He steps over the boundaries and his fascination with Isabella is sexual but it is also to do with power and control, about how people at the top want to control society, and often they really do not know what they are doing.”
However Duke Vincentio, while he may be preferable to Angelo, is perhaps not a whole lot better. One of the most debated aspects of the play comes when the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella but she does not reply. Is she willing or reluctant? Over the years theatre companies and academics have taken different stances on this. How will Theatrecorp handle this?
“You have to be careful with a morally difficult play,” says Max. “As artists we have to have a view. I don’t hold to the very modern notion that you take no stance and leave it up to the audience. You can have a point of view and the audience is still entitled to, and free to, disagree with you.”
Although written at the start of the 17th century and with the action taking place in the Archduchy of Austria, Theatrecorp will give Measure for Measure a somewhat modern day setting and perform the play in a raw, ensemble, style.
“We’ve given it a fairly archetypal modern day setting,” says Max. “If you set Shakespeare in a very definite time, and then the characters start talking about swords, it can be very jarring, so we have been careful to suggest certain things. The cast will be in formal dress and in some scenes, evening wear. There will be a lot of power dressing. It will be a very black and white set, except for the brothel scenes. The world of Measure for Measure is very formal and we really want to explore that.”
Measure for Measure is a co-partnership between Theatrecorp, NUI Galway, and the Town Hall Theatre. It is directed by Max Hafler. The cast is Emmet Byrne, Sean Ó Meallaigh, Daniel Guinnane, Mary Monaghan, Reidin Ní Thuama, Darragh O’Brien, Sarah O’Toole, and John Rogers.
Theatrecorp’s production of Measure for Measure takes place in the Black Box Theatre from Tuesday January 29 to Saturday February 2 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie