Taking on a Shakespeare play is always a tricky business, but it’s one this rebellious and largely all female cast has met head on. Their take on Measure for Measure is explosive, colourful and left me regretting the scenes that sadly had to be removed.
Measure for Measure is a raunchy tale of Venetian opulence interwoven with love and deceit and I think the cast got this just right. Most resounding in the plot though, was the undercurrent of female empowerment despite the cruel and manipulative behaviour of many of the male characters, this feminist impression is certainly heightened by the casting choices. The director, Dorothy McDowell’s decision to end the play after Isabella’s rejection of the duke’s marriage proposal was a great idea and reinforces Isabella as a strong, independent heroine whilst allowing us a giggle at the Duke’s expense. I am certain that very few women left this production without a smile on their face.
Having only seen traditional productions of Shakespeare in the past, it was exciting to watch a successful, original version and the subversive cast was especially refreshing. Bella Stock was a standout with her portrayal of Angelo and must get a special mention for the thought-provoking way she handled this difficult role. The duologue between her and Isabella (Madison Onsager) was believable and engaging and I felt the conflicting emotions of these characters bounced off each other extremely well. But that is not to lessen the rest of the cast, who all acted superbly with exceptional cohesion and chemistry which really bought the play to life. Unsurprisingly, for opening night there were a few slip-ups with Albert McIntosh who played Vincentio, the Duke, struggling with his lines a couple of times, but even this was carried off well and didn’t mar the performance. The cast really warmed up to their roles as the play went on and the final moments were exceptional; receiving a cheer from the audience when the play ended.
The set of the play was simplistic but had plenty going on and the cast used it well; the colourful banners were a particularly clever idea due to their versatile uses. On the other hand, the books and crumbled paper strewn over the stage was rather ineffective and I don’t feel this idea was fully explored. Another critique of the set was the sometimes overwhelming sound and lighting which occasionally overshadowed the actors. Unfortunately, the volume seemed rather loud and the lighting changes a bit gratuitous at points. Yet the positives outweigh the negatives here, and the use of a voiceover which the actors controlled via a remote really helped to keep the audience up to speed despite the disorientating cut scenes. Shakespeare plays are particularly difficult when it comes to set, music, and lighting as there is relatively little guidance for them, but here the cast used it to their advantage, creating a wild and wonderful backdrop for their acting.
Props and voiceovers aside, the real gem of this set was the saxophonist, Gabriella Fitzgerald, who provided the performance’s live music. Not only did she serenade the audience as they filed in, but also intermittently throughout the play where she was often interrupted to her chagrin! In fact, she provided much of the comedy by being a mouthpiece for the audience whilst playing several characters. The majority of the innovative aspects of this production surrounded Fitzgerald, and her character was largely responsible for the contemporary feel of the play. Even when playing Claudio and Marianna, her interactions with the other characters always had a tinge of satire as she was distinctly modern, distinguished by her casual clothing versus their suits.
Overall, this was a stellar performance, and I was particularly impressed by the equal distillation of comic and tragic elements into the production, meaning it stayed true to its Shakespearian ‘problem play’ roots. The Burton Taylor Studio was an excellent venue, lending a sense of intimacy to a traditionally inaccessible play. I highly advise you to go and experience this laugh-out-loud, tear-jerking and all-round fabulous performance yourselves.