Shakespearing #46 by David Foley
Passion and Confusion: Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience
Measure for Measure has the bones of a simple story. The Duke of Vienna leaves his city in charge of Angelo, a cold-hearted moralist who condemns a man to death for fornication. When Isabella, the man’s sister, comes to plead for his life, Angelo’s cold blood heats up and he offers mercy in exchange for her virtue. The Duke, however, has remained in the city disguised as a friar. He foils Angelo’s stratagems and leads everyone to a happy ending.
But Measure for Measure isn’t simple. It’s a mess, and a moral mess at that. In her Riverside introduction to the play, Ann Barton argues that its “moral confusion” is “surely deliberate,” though that may depend on what you mean by deliberate. When I wrote about it a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that, here and in his two previous plays, Shakespeare was “thrashing about” in a “moral wilderness.” Whether this is true, and if true, why (artistic crisis, the soul’s dark night, drunken incoherence), it’s a difficult play. More than difficult. Other Shakespeare plays are difficult, but it’s satisfying to wrestle with them. This one leaves you fretful and anxious.
Whether it needs to leave you as fretful as the recent production at Theatre for a New Audience I don’t actually know. It’s a fun production, and the director, Simon Godwin, strives to make the play relevant. As the evening starts, you are ushered through the back passageways of Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, which have been transformed into Mistress Overdone’s brothel.
Cast members loll around in bondage gear among displays of dildos and butt plugs. Leaving the brothel, you find yourself onstage. This is pleasing. It suggests the way we all step from the world of unseemly desire into the performance of a public self. And since the stage is an enormous conference table, it creates a sharp division between two worlds: the world of desire and the bureaucratic world that seeks to control it. It’s a smart image for a play about the dangers and difficulties of controlling desire.
Then the play starts, and we see the Duke writhing about on stage shooting up, the first of a series of images whose relevance is both provocative and hard to pin down. Angelo appears. He looks like Nixon, wears a Trumpian red tie, and speaks with the hidebound certainty of a CEO or Republican senator. Escalus, now Escala, appears in a red power suit and a helmet of auburn hair. They’ve got a microphone on their desk, which they resort to from time to time, giving their lines the heft of public pronouncements.
None of this is necessarily bad. You can have some fun teasing out the contemporary associations for what they produce. But they don’t help to make sense of a play which, to be fair, is difficult to make sense of. The Duke’s behavior is particularly hard to parse, though I’m not sure it helps to imagine he’s tweaking.
The most powerful moment in the production is also, I think, the most misguided. When Angelo makes his offer to Isabella, he pulls her violently towards him, groping her breast. It’s a moment of visceral contemporary relevance: a woman’s body physically violated by a powerful man.
But the offense to Isabella is not to her body; it’s to her sense of justice (“justice, justice, justice, justice!” as she cries in the last scene) and moral purity. Angelo and Isabella are matched in this sense, proponents of a purity the play dismantles. Theirs may be the play’s central relationship, and if Isabella becomes merely Angelo’s prey, it loses its unifying force.
One of the oddities of the play is that sparks fly more convincingly between Isabella and Angelo than between her and the guy she ends up with. Before going to the show, I’d assumed that sexy Jonathan Cake, who plays the Duke, would be playing Angelo. It might be better if he had, just as Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo) might have better captured the Duke’s gentle and disturbing ambiguity. Both do great work in the parts as conceived; it’s the way the parts are conceived that makes the play harder to track.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that contemporary resonance is all well and good, but with Shakespeare character runs the show. As contradictory as she is, there’s a reason actresses love to play Isabella. She’s a woman possessed of a moral passion. (Is it an accident that Henry James called another character possessed of a moral passion Isabel?) Tap into that moral passion and, though you might not make sense of the play, you can ride the rhythm that drives it: moral certainties crashing against the unaccountable world.
Shakespeare’s comedies test the moral world. We re-learn the rules by breaking them and, in so doing, reaffirm them. If the ending of Measure for Measure leaves us anxious, it’s because here the moral world fails the test and nobody seems to notice. They go on behaving as if it hasn’t. Central to our understanding of this is the Duke, whom Barton cannily sees as a playwright failing at his task. He’s not strung out on drugs. He’s high on the belief that he can make sense of a world that exceeds all his efforts to do so. This is its own kind of moral passion. And confusion. Whether the play’s moral confusion is deliberate or not, it leaves us with the image of a man unaware that the sense he’s made of the world makes no sense.
Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience plays until July 16th.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.