'And measure still for measure ....'

Theatre The Globe's latest production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure as broadcast live on BBC Four last night was difficult. As my favourite play of the canon, of course I do have my own ideas of the perfect version and how certain scenes should be played; also with the filter of television between the viewer and the production. But for what is quite a prestigious show this was just maddeningly inconsistent. The reason Measure is forever listed as a problem play is because it skirts both through comedy and tragedy but in its use of language latter very much edges it out. This time at The Globe the players are emphasizing the former which in places sucked the pathos and tension from the scenes in which we should be on the edges of our seat.

A prime example is Mark Rylance's Duke. In pretty much every other reading and performance of the play, The Duke is a manipulator, controlling the action from behind the scenes covering up the cracks which have appeared during his reign. Here he appeared a buffoon, playing everything by ear and taking himself out of actions he is creating, at times clowning around to that point that we can't take him seriously in the all important final act when he has to take charge - when he orders Angelo around its difficult to perceive why his deputy crumples so easily. I'm happy for experimentation but it needs to be consistent with the language and characterization and as times it didn't fit together for me.

The other issue was the playing of said language in leading the perception of the audience. Although there are some funny lines, this presentation was beset by moments in which a linguistic trick, added to emphasise a theme or idea were played as a joke causing the audience to laugh dragging them out of the scene. In Act Two for example, when Isabella makes her impassioned plea to Angelo to save her brother and in the next scene but one in which is suggests a liaison as a bribe we should be horrified by this man of power using his masculinity to manipulate such a virginal feminine figure. Played well and with the right amount of malice that's what you get. Here, even with an attempted rape somewhere in there the audience laughed nervously through it - not because its actually funny but because the actors (Liam Brennan and Sophie Thompson) accentuated the puns meaning that the audiences fell into the usual peer pressure based laughter which happens in these situations. It's distracting and makes the people who hadn't seen the play before leave with the wrong impression.

One of the best performances I've seen of the play was in a tiny venue at the Edinburgh Festival. That was all about darkness, any comedy a desperate attempt by the characters themselves to leaven a horrible situation. Somehow that gripped and managed to get by without unexpected prat falls, jigs with the condemned man between acts or end in a dance number which ruins the final moments of the play when The Duke drops his bombshell proposal on Isabella. It's annoying that this weird approach devalues what is not only one of Shakespeare's forgotten best plays, but also stops new viewers from falling in love with it the way I have.

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