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Shakespeare, #MeToo and a lot of empty seats

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Measure for Measure by Shakespeare (or as it might be renamed: Poverty is Better for Women Than Marriage) RSC Barbican until January 16

I FIRST saw Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure aged seventeen at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton. Much has changed since then, of course; all the actors were white, women didn’t play male roles, and all the seats were full. At the RSC production I saw at the Barbican, the audience was small, perhaps because this dark play is one not many companies would offer in the season of frivolity. But fun and games is not what the RSC is about.

In the programme, Ewan Fernie, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University, writes somewhat clumsily: ‘Measure for Measure is as challenging a message for the #MeToo era as it was in the intensely and unstably religious epoch Shakespeare wrote in.’

It tells the tortured tale of Isabella, a novice nun whose brother Claudio has been sentenced to death for fathering a child out of wedlock. They strongly disapproved of fornication in those days. The death sentence was imposed by Angelo, played by Putin-lookalike Sandy Grierson, deputy to the Duke of Vienna, who has gone away. In reality he is still there in disguise, watching how his people behave when he’s absent.

Angelo, in traditional and now notorious casting-couch manner, offers to rescind the sentence if Isabella will sleep with him. She decides her virtue is more important than Claudio’s death and tells her brother so. He is extremely upset but his life is saved by the goodwill of the Duke, played by stalwart Antony Byrne, and some of the kinder minor characters who swap him for another prisoner.

It’s all highly ‘relevant’, which is what the RSC intends; even the stark grey set and drab costumes remind us that this play carries a very serious message. Every production I have seen this year has similarly resembled a crumbling garage. Shakespeare hated and feared puritanism which was on the horizon, but these productions seem to signal their virtue visually as well as in their interpretation. 

The casting of women in men’s roles and black actors is a key indicator of this didacticism. In Wolverhampton, the pimp, Pompey Bum, was white and comical. My mother didn’t like the word ‘bum’ at all, but I soothed her with an explanation from my A-level studies that it referred to ‘bum-bailey’, someone who worked in an orchard.

He was played with charm and spirit by the talented David Ajao, who gave us a welcome shot of humour stand-up style. But it was not easy to see him, a black man, being kicked and punched by white characters. Those resonances are obvious to a modern audience but completely irrelevant to the play. They hung in the air with nowhere to go. There was some dark Elizabethan humour left untouched in the scenes with Barnadine, played with ghoulish glee by Graeme Brookes as a grotesquely cracked prisoner desperate to be executed but only when he decided the time was right. This gave us a rare scent of the cultural context of the play, not overlaid by modern sensibility.

As Fernie says, it is a political play, but possibly not always in the way the RSC hoped. I thought of Boris and Corbyn at the line ‘Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall.’ Corbyn and the moral Angelo both came a terrible cropper. Corbyn comes to mind again in the descriptions of Angelo, the classic Puritan: ‘His blood is very snow broth’ and ‘When he makes water, his urine is congealed ice’. This neatly summed up the Left’s lack of humour and there was an uncomfortable reminder that a large number of Corbynistae were female. ‘Women are credulous to false prints, ruined by men who take advantage,’ meaning they often like to believe what they see without thinking.

It’s surprising that such a sexist comment was still included in the text, but it was more than made up for by wafer-thin and wan Lucy Phelps as Isabella. She recently tweeted a tactical voting guide, saying ‘it was vital to keep the Tories out’.

She looked ethereally determined and fully feminist in this production, eaten up in her character’s terrible conflict: her brother’s life or her virtue. They were lucky. There was a traditional happy ending with justice done, creepy Angelo thrown out of office and refusing to take responsibility, friends and lovers reunited, differences settled and marriages promised. But unlike the version I saw in the 1970s, the idea of marriage was a final, terrible assault on Isabella.

The Duke wanted to take her away from poverty, chastity and obedience in a convent to extreme riches as his lady wife. She was disgusted and appalled at the idea. In the sixteenth century a woman could turn down marriage to enter a convent but this Isabella spins around in distress, a trapped victim of the Duke as much as she was of lustful Angelo.

Shakespeare didn’t write a single line to confirm this attitude so she conveys it via a dumb show of horrified face-pulling and arm-waving. Apparently this #MeToo ending has been the version of choice for quite some time; marriage can no longer be seen as a good offer even if it comes from a man we’ve watched for over two hours being just and noble.

That skilful adjustment shows a possible the way forward with Shakespeare, now an increasingly difficult writer for teachers and dramatists to approach. Where necessary you can erase his culture by simply miming your own and the director’s personal disgust and disagreement. Rather like performances for the deaf, the correct ideas you should be thinking will be silently signed by the cast. In this case the deaf are people of my generation, the eager theatre-lovers who once filled those empty seats.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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