Chet Greason, Gazette staff
Kel Pero’s forward in the program for the Stratford Festival’s 2013 production of Measure for Measure states in full that the play is one of Shakespeare's “problem plays.” Its odd plot-points and troublesome conclusions have led some to speculate that the play was rewritten after the Bard’s death – as if this explanation is somehow more easy to accept than the one where Shakespeare is a human being fully capable of writing a few bad plays.
You wonder why theatres choose to continue to produce it. It’s a little like musicians covering “Ebony and Ivory” when they could be covering “Yesterday.”
Regardless, director Martha Henry does what she can with the wonky script, including a rather novel approach to the character of Duke Vincentio, as played by the always engaging Geraint Wyn Davies.
The rest of the cast play their parts well: Angelo (Tom Rooney) considers himself pious but caves to corruption when handed power. Rooney plays Angelo as subtly pathetic and loathsome, yet strangely sympathetic. A nice job there.
Carmen Grant is the nun-in-training trying to convince Angelo to release her brother, who’s been sentenced to death for knocking up his girlfriend. Grant, as the object of Angelo’s lust, exudes true piety, and is indeed the most incorruptible character in the play.
Stephen Oimette plays slimeball Lucio. Randy Hughson is the unapologetically boorish Pompey. Brian Tree is the Peter Sellers-esque Elbow. All three have fine comedic moments that add some much needed purposeful silliness to the play, counter-balancing the unintended silliness of the story’s dramatic arch.
That leaves our troublesome Duke, who causes much of the play’s unnecessary suffering with his ill-advised attempts to uncover the inner machinations of the city of Vienna; he adopts disguises, manipulates underlings, and gives baffling orders to key players.
(I suppose, at this point, I should include a spoiler alert, but can you really spoil a 400-year-old play? Regardless, consider yourselves warned.)
It all starts when the duke enters the stage via its permanent cage fixture dressed in a flamboyant sequined cape and mask. The audience audibly sighs, as if to say, “Oh boy ... what are we in for?”
Following the Duke’s onstage costume change into quasi-fascist regalia (this version is set in post-war Vienna) he proceeds to go underground, weaving a convoluted tapestry and royally messing with people who could really just use the help of a sane public official. His onstage pawns, and the audience, go along with it, largely due to Wyn Davies’ charm and fatherly approachability.
It is during that troublesome final scene, where the Duke is toying with people’s lives like a child torturing a fly, that the odd opening suddenly makes sense. His ploy revealed, his final decrees declared, the shocked and bewildered looks of the rest of the cast say it all: Duke Vincentio is a stark-raving lunatic.
It’s a brilliant turn by Henry that rectifies a majority of the play’s foibles. Only a madman would run his subjects through the kind of asinine hoops that Vincentio does. Only a sociopath would proclaim such bizarre punishments, as well as rewards, on his underlings. Only a sadist would gleefully string innocents along into thinking their lives, as well as those of their loved ones, were in peril. Indeed, based on the Duke’s actions, a modern audience must assume he’s either dangerously delusional or has a truly twisted sense of humour.
As the lights dim on Wyn Davies’s childlike grin and the rest of the cast’s looks of concern, suddenly the play makes sense. Bravo to Henry for finding a way out. However, the path from introduction to revelation is a long one, and may not be for everyone.
A “problem play” indeed.