“This is the disgusting, stinking world of medieval Vienna. The darkness of this world is absolutely necessary to the meaning of the play…When this play is prettily staged, it is meaningless—it demands an absolutely convincing roughness and dirt.” Thus Peter Brook, who directed a legendary production in 1950, on his vision of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Simon Godwin’s pathway into the play at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn is by way of a corridor through Mistress Overdone’s brothel, along a narrow basement path lined with discreetly closed cubicles and arrays of lubes, dildos, anal plugs, shackles and handcuffs, multicolored condoms, an inflatable sex doll. It is a space dimly lit but by no means medieval, an ingratiatingly tacky emporium more likely to amuse than repel the New York theatergoers passing through.
Given the perennial relevance of the various injustices it circles around—the sexual exploitation and pious hypocrisy and persecution of whistleblowers—Measure for Measure invites updating. The virginal Isabella, realizing that no one will believe her story of victimization against that of the all-powerful Angelo—who has been named regent of Vienna by its absent duke—cries out: “To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, / Who would believe me?”—language so direct it could be lifted from the latest celebrity harassment trial, especially when spoken with the angry clarity that Cara Ricketts gives the line.
Angelo—the moral disciplinarian with a spotless reputation who, once given power, swiftly succumbs to his most predatory impulses—can be envisioned almost too neatly as the sort of high-minded conservative who from time to time finds himself indicted for sexual malfeasance. There is no problem with Thomas Jay Ryan’s performance: Ryan’s delineation of Angelo’s ethical collapse and his half-hearted efforts to justify himself to himself have the barely controlled panic of a public figure realizing how little he knows himself. The regent lies, and the most unhampered truth-telling comes from sex workers and criminals who make no pretense to any credo beyond their own self-interest, as in the unarguable defense of the tapster Pompey, arrested for procuring: “Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.”
But it’s in the nature of Measure for Measure that whatever contemporary analogies are invoked cannot quite make sense of what happens. In its early stages the play is centered on the three characters whose destinies collide so violently: Angelo, Isabella, and her brother Claudio, who has been condemned for fornication. The scenes in which they confront each other have the amplitude of the tragedies that were to follow: Isabella pleading for Claudio’s life, Angelo demanding her virginity as the price of her brother’s pardon, Claudio overwhelmed by the terror of death, Isabella (in a moment that challenges any audience’s sympathy) denouncing her brother for his weakness of character when she realizes he is willing to see her give in to Angelo’s demands.
The grandeur of these scenes becomes most fully alive through Cara Ricketts’s Isabella, intensely focused, supremely pointed in her argumentation, but with a hint of an absolute commitment to the ideal that helps account for her harsh dismissal of her condemned brother’s terror of dying; an altogether serious person, too serious for the world she finds herself inhabiting, perhaps too serious for the madcap Duke when he proposed to her at the very end of the play. Her reaction to Angelo’s harassment goes beyond physical repulsion into profound moral contempt—expressing itself in angry laughter—at the triviality of his character. Her ultimate forgiveness of Angelo—at a moment when she still believes her brother to have been executed—is dramatically the most difficult of all, couched as it is in a nice legal argument, but Ricketts brought a somber conviction to it.
An audience that wants to take the play as readily grasped satire cannot evade the puzzlements and reversals of judgment that come in its later scenes—reversals of judgment that do not end even when the play is done. Measure for Measure is a perpetual questioning machine, exquisitely functional, set to a relentless tempo, yet a machine that bristles and crackles in its joints with contradiction and discomfort. Harold Bloom has described it as “a comedy that destroys comedy.” It is a comedy that threatens to destroy or at least wear down its own characters by subjecting them to the only mechanism—a mechanism demanding elaborate subterfuges and unlikely changes of heart—by which they can avoid a tragic fate. By the end we might imagine them as the exhausted, socially viable remnants of those conflicted, passionate beings we saw tearing apart everything including themselves scene after scene, during the first three acts. They are saved, and some of them have saved others, but for what fate we can only wonder.
In Godwin’s production, to emerge from the brothel’s passageway into the main theater is to find the Polonsky transformed into what looks like an oversize banqueting hall, the playing area laid out as an immense table decked with candles and balloons and trays of drinks, a few audience members seated around the edge. Drunken revelers stagger noisily across the tabletop stage, leaving behind a solitary figure sprawled on its surface, shooting up (presumably) heroin and then wrapping himself up in a tangle of sheets. A woman in business attire approaches him, studying him like a corporate assistant confronted by a messy but familiar management problem. He, it quickly emerges, is Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, and she is Escalus, the “ancient Lord” who serves him, transmuted into Escala, a tightly controlled executive who in January LaVoy’s reading sometimes evokes a less murderous version of Tilda Swinton’s scheming pharmaceuticals exec in Michael Clayton.
As the Duke (Jonathan Cake) rouses himself from his nod he delivers the play’s opening speech, in a broken rhythm suggesting that the passage’s roundabout prolixity reflects his faltering attempt to shake himself out of his opiate daze. It is one way to get the play going: pitched forward headlong, off-balance from the start, the unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions piling up before we even know where we are. What manner of being is the Duke really? Why is he leaving Vienna in such haste and putting in his place a temporary regent, the “precise” Angelo, known for his rigorous strictness? Why does he choose to linger, disguised as a friar, to observe what happens in his absence? Having learned that his moralistic stand-in is attempting to blackmail Isabella—a young woman just about to enter a convent—into sex in order to save her brother Claudio (Leland Fowler) from a death sentence, why does he intervene in such needlessly tortuous fashion, subjecting innocents to agonies of misinformation? When in one of the play’s most eloquent speeches he more or less persuades Claudio that life is not especially worth living—“Be absolute for death”—does he speak his own sincerest thoughts or is this merely part of the role he is playing as prison confessor?
To cast the Duke as a junkie is one way of providing him with a motive. His addiction perhaps discourages him from exercising moral authority; perhaps he sees it as a weakness rendering him unfit to enforce Vienna’s laws with the necessary severity; perhaps he even harbors the thought that those laws are unnecessarily severe; perhaps he simply needs to take some time out. In any event his drug habit, as far as I could observe, comes up only once more (a quick glance at the track marks on his arm, lest he forget), and from the moment he dons his disguise he grows steadily more assured, though it is an assurance boosted by waves of antic humor to which Cake at times gives an almost Monty Pythonish edge. A certain hilarity gives him courage to dream up and carry out his preposterous scheme, which more and more comes to resemble a baroque sting operation.
We can hardly expect to find out who the Duke really is in the course of the evening, since Shakespeare’s text leaves that question so hauntingly open. Even if he assures a confederate early on that he has “a purpose / More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends / Of burning youth,” he never articulates what that purpose is. He is more than central to the play—as the narrative advances he becomes its directing force, moving plot elements around like game pieces—while remaining to the end a fascinating cipher. He is memorably termed “the Duke of dark corners”—a secret devotee of hidden vices—by the witty reprobate Lucio, but Lucio is by no means averse to making things up. If nothing else the Duke can be said to behave very much like a playwright working with improvisatory energy on his play’s last act, an act that will feature a succession of agonizingly drawn-out revelations, a string of pardons, and an unlooked-for proposal of marriage.
The lust of the hypocritical Angelo is not triggered by the attractive power of beauty but perversely by the notion of violating purity: the pornography of power, relished by a man for whom execution and torture are primary tools of policy. There is a terror at the heart of everything. The Duke’s exhortation to Claudio to resign himself to death cannot match in dramatic effect Claudio’s subsequent speech—roughly the play’s midpoint—on the horror of dying: “The weariest and most loathed worldly life / That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment / Can lay on nature, is a paradise / To what we fear of death.”
Sometimes the play feels like a series of decentered snapshots of city dwellers shuffling between sex and death. It is the only Shakespeare play concerned with how a city is run, and what that is like for the people who live there. (Romeo and Juliet is also a city play of sorts, but it centers on the operation of clans, not the municipal government that so ineffectively intervenes in their never-ending feud; and that play’s poetry—so unlike the gnarled, combative, often tensely legalistic exchanges of Measure for Measure—constantly evokes spaces beyond the immediate setting.) In Measure for Measure everything is local, in the most oppressive way. We look at things from the top down and from the bottom up, and the judgment is ambivalent, or rather multivalent. Godwin’s staging conveys very well the sense of airless interconnecting interiors, all linked as part of the same system: claustrophobic offices, claustrophobic cells of both prisons and convents, but mostly of prisons. It could almost be called a prison play, a point underlined here by the cell walls constantly rolling in and out of the foreground.
The motives of the three main characters are seen from many angles, by each other and by bystanders and street-corner commentators of all sorts, from the generously inclined Provost of the prison, realized with great feeling by Oberon K.A. Adjepong, to the unavoidable Lucio, amusingly played by Haynes Thigpen as a self-satisfied comedian a little too hip for the room, always there to speak up for ordinary human vice (“a little more lenity to lechery would do no harm”) although contemptuous of the whores he sleeps with, constantly hovering at the edge of what goes on so he can get his digs in and almost managing to avoid getting called on it. The comedy provides not so much relief as an obverse view, consistently deflating and needling, and it is rarely clear where exactly the boundaries are, or who can truly be called central in this world fallen askew.
Consider the late emergence of Barnardine, a murderer who for nine years has been awaiting execution. The Duke determines to substitute his head for that of Claudio, demanded by Angelo in proof that he has been put to death, but when Barnardine—already described as “a man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come”—emerges from his cell, he simply refuses to die—“I have been drinking hard all night, and I will have more time to prepare me… I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion”—and staggers back to his cell. It was a disappointment to see this episode treated as a comic interlude, with too much hokum and unneeded verbal additions. (Zachary Fine did much in his other role as the simple-minded constable Elbow.)
It’s the most surprising scene in Measure for Measure and ought to stop the proceedings in their tracks, with its after beat the Duke’s astonishing pardon of the murderer in the last act. I can still recall being taken to see John Houseman’s production of the play at age eight—a memorable outing to the Shakespeare theater in Stratford, Connecticut in 1956—and however dimly I apprehended its stew of bawdry and sexual extortion, there was no mistaking the uproarious force of Barnardine’s unconditional refusal. The actor was Pernell Roberts, of later Bonanza fame, and he must have delivered Barnardine’s few lines with great vigor, since the scene has lingered in memory ever since. In a play of punitive laws, complex masquerades, and tortuous mutually annihilating arguments, it briefly upholds the intoxicating possibility of simply walking away.
Simon Godwin’s production of Measure for Measure is at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center through July 16.