The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1347 Friday, 25 June 2004
Date: Friday, 25 Jun 2004 09:17:29 +0100
Subject: 15.1279 Measured Response
Comment: RE: SHK 15.1279 Measured Response
I don't think anyone else is volunteering so I think it falls to me to
speak up for the NT Measure for Measure.
This play is famously the only one to defy Bowdler since if you cut all
the dodgy elements all you are left with is the Duke taking a holiday.
The "early fellatio" is startling but I didn't feel it was gratuitous.
In Shakespeare's theatre real fellatio may have been going on in the
audience rather than simulated on stage. Such services were undoubtedly
freely available around the Globe where the church was complicit in the
massive sex trade carried on by the Southwark geese.
I think the fellatio accomplishes at least two things. Firstly the play
is about sex and power and how an imbalance of power arouses lust and
then tyranny. The fellatio is hence a symbol of that imbalance of power
and how people use sexual power to degrade others. The arrogance of the
wealthy fellatee with his sagging middle-aged buttocks and the exhausted
revulsion of the ragged fellator as she turns and spits over the back of
her chair underlines immediately that there are real (female) victims of
the previous laissez faire regime of the Duke. Without such a jolt as a
modern audience we may equate a liberal regime with 'free love' and in
this world there is little love and free sex is also scarce. Without
such an antipathy to the rakes and their progress it makes the character
of Angelo even harder to sustain; he appears a pasteboard puritan from
the start and weakens the play.
"What's this? What's this?" is difficult to stage and act (I thought Tim
Piggot Smith did it well in the BBC MfM). I think that it is a perfectly
orthodox reading to think that Angelo is genuinely surprised and alarmed
to find that he has responded to the supplicant in front of him with an
erection and the fact that he is surprised puts the best slant on his
nature. I concede that the playing of this line may have been rather,
well, heavy handed.
Forcing Isabella's hand in Angelo's flies helps to gloss one of the
major weaknesses of the play. Isabella may lose (especially a modern)
audience when she tells her brother not just that she would rather he be
executed before she would part with her virginity but for the temerity
of suggesting it "Might but my bending down Reprieve thee from thy fate,
it should proceed... I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death... 'Tis
best thou diest quickly (III.1). To see that Isabella has been visibly
shaken by a sexual assault immediately prior to this speech makes the
rage and violent condemnation more human.
I was particularly pleased to see Angelo as a self-harmer since this
makes a certain symbolic symmetry in the play. Up until this point he
has managed to constrain his passions with a personal mortification
symbolised in this production by the bloodletting but when he is
propelled into power the greater passions that arouses cause him to let
the blood of others and if the Duke had really left Angelo might have
become a fully fledged sadist - revelling in degrading others for it's
own sake (I would contend Angelo doesn't quite get there). Angelo and
Isabella are both in some way self-harmers. I don't believe Shakespeare
regarded the life of a nun for a young woman as anything otherwise. It
could be possible to view the strength of Angelo's reaction to her as
due to the recognition of one sado-masochist by another.
I don't agree that the open sluice turns the eye from the main event.
The traffic between defilement and cleanliness seems perfectly correct
in the symbolic landscape of the play. Angelo is obsessed with
cleanliness; he holds the microphone with a handkerchief, wipes drinking
glasses and particularly keeps his razorblades in a clean white cloth.
When he puts his hands in the bucket containing the head and wipes blood
on his white shirt he completes the circle he started with the scarring
of his own arm prior to rolling down the white sleeve. In a similar vein
(as it were), Isabella uses the sluice to try and wash the hand that was
inside Angelo's trousers. Isabella is also convinced that losing her
virginity would irrevocably defile her body and her soul. That it is the
physical nature of this defilement that appalls her is underlined by her
apparent unconcern about the dangers to her soul of lying to Angelo.
I cannot tell whether Elbow's accent is the actor's natural voice but I
felt it made Elbow's malapropisms of common words more plausible. I also
liked the way that the ragged traffic warden's uniform is augmented by
body armour and a serious nightstick when the back to basics plan gets
in full swing. As a citizen you know you are in trouble when traffic
wardens can beat you senseless. It was as though the Keystone Kops had
Although this was a very high tech performance with lots of 'gadgets and
gizmos' it is strangely faithful to original methods that might be seen
at the globe (I look forward to seeing their MfM). There are very few
large props and no flats. The production moves at a terrific pace, in
part because actors enter and exit in the dark around lit portions of
the stage enabling it to be completed in 2hrs 10min without an interval
and without major cuts that I noticed. The pace enables the production
to glide over the notorious plotholes which I saw the last RSC
production fall into (e.g. don't worry about the execution this handy
look alike just died of fever...) and the overall effect was of a
bravura production - the technical rehearsals must have been nerve
And I don't care if it is cheap shot - I think "Sanctimonious pirate" fits.
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