In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio has about twice as many lines as any other character, but his actions are about half as comprehensible as anyone else’s.
Why would the Duke cause Vienna to fall into such a “strange fever,” only then to sweep in, disguised, to cure it?
Director Martha Henry’s noir-inspired production has at its centre a duke, played with sublimely oblivious egotism by Geraint Wyn Davies, whose motivations are a mystery even to himself, though the audience gets an inkling early on. In the first moments, he enters in a ghostly white mask and ladies’ clothing with a little camera around his neck.
A investigator of immorality who secretly cross-dresses? Given the Fifties setting, another powerful puppet-master, J. Edgar Hoover, comes to mind – though our own era is hardly lacking in high-toned hypocrites.
Measure for Measure’s plot is a thick one right from the start: The Duke departs from Vienna, leaving the city in the command of his deputy Angelo (the transcendent Tom Rooney), who seems less than convinced of his suitability for the task. The Duke’s stated reason is that Angelo will crack down on laws he has left unenforced in the city, specifically those applying to sexual transgressions.
Sure enough, Claudio (a fine Christopher Prentice) is soon arrested for having had sex with his betrothed without, essentially, having filled out the proper forms. For this, he is to be executed. “We must not make a scarecrow of the law,” says Angelo, making the argument that the letter of the law is more important than the spirit of it.
It’s at this point that we meet young, aspiring nun Isabella (Carmen Grant), sister to Claudio. She is rather reluctantly convinced by local ne’er-do-well Lucio (Stephen Ouimette, more beatnik than bawd in John Pennoyer’s oddly gaudy and castrated costuming) to speak up on behalf of her brother.
It must be a tough role for Grant: After all, her director played this country’s most notable Isabella in a famous 1975 production at Stratford directed by Robin Phillips, one that essentially rescued the play from its reputation of being impossible.
But while you’d think a former Isabella would see the play through that character’s eyes, here the “novice” novice is a mere supporting part and played assuredly but with little nuance by Grant. She’s a zealot who burns bright with belief, but is otherwise none too bright.
It’s only natural that Angelo would be both attracted to and want to defile as vehement a virgin as this – he is strict in words, but can’t live up to them personally. Soon enough, he puts forth an offer to Isabella in secret: If she sleeps with him, he will release her brother. (As the self-hating Angelo, Rooney gives the production its most compelling performance, dramatizing his inner struggle suspensefully.)
Having created the conditions for this conflict, the Duke – now hidden in plain sight as a Welsh-accented friar – sets about bringing a happy ending in the most convoluted way possible, a plot that involves beheaded pirates and bed tricks and other far-fetched folk-tale follies.
In Wyn Davies’s jolly performance, it is clear that the Duke gets off on all this subterfuge and is blind to all the pain he causes along the way. Lucio, whom Ouimette paints as delightfully louche and knowing, is the only one who sees through “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” – and it is even implied that the two have a homosexual relationship.
Though Lucio tries to hold up a mirror to the Duke, he remains resolutely deluded – and would rather hide in dark corners than look into his own. His final proposal to Isabella – this problem play’s most famous “problem” – become more about him needing to play dress-up once again; ultimately, he deceives himself most of all.
That was my interpretation, anyway – Henry muddies as much as she clarifies. Her cast is exceptional down through the smaller characters – I particularly liked Stephen Russell’s kind and conflicted Provost, the most civil of all civil servants – but at a certain point she simply hands the show over to them and leaves them to fend for themselves.
The result is a production that lacks a clear centre and treats tone on a scene-by-scene basis. Most intriguing is the metaphysical treatment given to a minor character, a prisoner named Barnardine, who in Robert Persichini’s amped-up performance becomes a frighting and baffling presence outside of the Duke’s control. Another unsolved mystery.