Saturday, July 10, 2010

Measure for Measure

Company B Belvoir presents MEASURE FOR MEASURE, written by William Shakespeare. Adapted & Directed by Benedict Andrews, for the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St.

From Benedict Andrews' Director's notes in the programme:
A PLAY OF MIRRORS. MEASURE FOR MEASURE is my third Shakespeare staging concerned with the mechanics of power. JULIUS CAESAR (2005) dealt with the theatrics of government, and THE WAR OF THE ROSES (2009) raised the spectres of sovereign power which haunt our concept of society. MEASURE FOR MEASURE looks into the ‘very nerves of state’ where the economies of desire and law interlock.

This MEASURE FOR MEASURE is set in a society much like ours - where pornography has become mainstream, where sex tapes of celebrities are public fodder, where politicians speak in the name of God, where everything is numbered and consumable, where all private lives are under constant surveillance - a control society.

Like Simon Phillips in his recent adaptation of Shakespeare's RICHARD III for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Mr Andrews sets his production in a recognisable contemporary world. This setting (Set Design: Ralph Myers) looks like a second-string hotel room that has a featured glass walled bathroom to be viewed from the large sized bed (shower, wash sink, mirror and toilet on a tiled floor surface),which, possibly, throws it into the realm of a specialised brothel room - Mistress Overdone's Brothel Conveniences (?!) - two walls of the room are surrounded by a retractable curtain, which does retract to allow us to voyeuristically observe all the activities that take place in there. It is on a revolve that spins about, at different rates of speed, to allow different scenes/rooms to be set up and then acted out in (a setting, indeed, for Genet's famous brothel, THE BALCONY).

The costumes (Dale Ferguson) are ordinary day wear of the time: suits, collar and ties for the government figures, modern religious dress for the nuns and friars, white collar casual working class attire for the office figures, police uniforms and the scungy street wear of the lower levels of the 'underbelly' class of the brothel/street worlds which one might engage within Kings Cross, in Sydney.

This transposition is quickly grasped by the audience and easily accepted. Added to this, Mr Andrews introduces the world of CCTV with hidden cameras behind the bathroom mirror and from the ceiling that projects observational images onto two large screens on either side of the theatre auditorium which simultaneously captures the action in the room (similar to Mr Andrews' 'Big Brother' video affects in his THE SEASON OF SARSPARILLA). This metaphor of the 'pornography' capture and privacy invasion for the contemporary world of MEASURE FOR MEASURE is instantly communicated.

But further complication to this idea is suggested by the addition of a live video camera team, taken by the actors when not in character, that captures for the wall screens, close up and hand held invasions of the characters lives. Is it a layer where the characters/actors are narcissistically filming themselves in an intense exercise of intimacy for the audience to get ‘up close and personal’? To come to the cinematic closeness of the moments of moral decisions? To.....? I was in a dilemma of comprehending this extra step to the ideas of the production.

This was for me the easiest of Mr Andrews' adaptations of the classics to observe and absorb. There was, in retrospect, two productions being explored and experienced.

The first, which is an adapted reading of Shakespeare's text was a relative success. In Mr Andrews' adaptation, most of the low comedy of the play has been removed. The comic scenes between Escalus (Frank Whitten), the Provost (Steve Rodgers) and the brothel world of Pompey (Arky Michael), Elbow (Ashley Lyons), Mistress Overdone (Helen Thompson) and Froth (completely excised) and that of the prison with Abhorson (Ashley Lyons) and Barnadine (Colin Moody) is truncated and reduced to mere functional need of the director's intentions.

The focus-intention is on the moral dilemmas of the principal characters of the play: Angelo (Damon Gameau), Claudio (Chris Ryan) and Isabella (Robin McLeavy) brought on by the strange vicissitudes and consequent behaviour of the ruler of this city of Vienna, the Duke Vincentio (Robert Menzies), and further the ‘fantastic’ Lucio (Toby Schmitz), and compliant Mariana (Helen Thompson).

Note: the following paragraphs quote extensively from Norrie Epstein’s “Friendly Shakespeare” Penguin Books, 1993…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE along with ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA are often termed the “problem plays”. “Although grouped with the comedies (of Shakespeare) in the First Folio, they are pungent satires on human vice, sexuality, folly and greed.” What we call ‘black comedies’, “because they make us laugh at what we would normally find distasteful.” As the low life comedy of the Pompey - Mistress Overdone- Elbow world has been taken away, this production focuses on the realism and “explicit portrayal of infidelity, sexual dishonesty, and civic corruption” amongst the ‘ruling’ and middle class, and with clinical detachment reveals the more unsavoury side of our human nature. Shakespeare offers no clear-cut answers to the social problems he presents in these plays. In fact, they mostly finish without resolution. So is it here with MEASURE FOR MEASURE. The final marriage proposal by the Duke famously, notoriously problematic. “The atmosphere of these plays (the so-called problem plays) is naturalistic, lacking the transcendent good humour of comedy and the cosmic redemption of tragedy.”

In this production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE the setting is crassly wordly and profane. The world is starkly realistic, the interpolated (and lengthy) scene of the ‘trashing’ of Abhorson, with shit and blood, and then the room/cell (recollection of scenes from the Steve McQueen film HUNGER and Nicholas Wilding Refn film BRONSON came flooding back; although Mr Moody, for my money, was no comparison to the Tom Hardy character) a case in point; "there is no magical Illyria or Forest of Arden here. The Vienna of MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a portrait of urban blight, a place where officials are no different to the underworld of pimps, whores, and thieves." But "finally, though the play depicts an amoral world, (it) is not lacking in moral standards. By exposing some of the worst of human existence, it holds a corrective mirror up to our (recognisable) vices and like all satires, (it) is tacitly based upon a moral ideal, which though it exists in theory is consistently ignored in practice."

Mr Andrews in his notes to the production concludes, he “love(s) (the play) for the problems it poses - formally and theatrically and especially morally. It's a scathing and relentless inquiry into questions of law and transgression, of authority and desire, of death and justice.(He) considers it a psycho-sexual-political-thriller for our times.” This he mostly deliver: “A look into the ‘very nerves of state’ where the economies of desire and law interlock.”

Shakespeare and all the cast are triumphant here. ALL the cast (however underused, except as camera crew).

Mr Menzies, Ryan, Schmitz, Gameau, Ms Thompson and McLeavy are especially erudite in the textual clarity of their responsibilities (although, all are assisted with attached microphones).

The second production concerns the use of a hand-held video camera used by the cast to capture images that are constantly relayed onto the two large screens, one either side of the auditorium (Video Designer & Operator, Sean Bacon). The play is told twice. One actual and one mediated through the eye of the camera. In my experience of the performance, having purchased a ticket that sat me in the front row of the central block of the theatre, neither the actual or the mediated performance was satisfactory. Physically it was difficult, twisting either way to catch the images, let alone dramatically, experientially.

For instance, the great central scene of the play between Isabella and her brother Claudio (Act III, Scene 1), on which the play turns, rich in its poetry and shifting argument, was actually staged in a dark corner of the bathroom of the set, the lighting to the room having been turned off, both characters crouched low to the ground, with another actor masking bodily, holding a video camera close to the faces of the protagonists with a special blue light switched on at the camera lens. To be able to participate with the scene in its urgent and pregnant moments, it was necessary to watch the images on the screen that had been doctored to give the impression of a low budget scratchy image that recalled the urgency of most of the feature film THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) - a quasi documentary. Choosing between watching the masked actual performance or the mediated stylised images up on the walls, became a distancing and unsatisfactory task. The actors having to mediate and express the dilemmas of the play either for camera or theatre. The heightened language and action reduced to small screen-scale dimensions. The play lost out. The actors lost out and I, the audience, lost out. Ultimately. Unlike the contemporary world found by the Company in Melbourne for their take of RICHARD III - where the acting choices fulfilled the theatrical thrill possible in the Shakespearean text whilst balanced neatly in the vibe of the now world.

Later, the long and convoluted fifth act of the play was played with a camera crew of actors, often standing in front of the actors attempting to explicate the plays unravelling. It was like being an observer of a film set. The close up images on the screens were hand held and 'jumpy', not always clear for the dramatic moments (David Stratton would have been apoplectic!).

These are just two instances where the exploration that Mr Andrews was making with this sometimes dominating experiment in vision obfuscated or diminished the dramatic potential of the material of the play as a theatre work.

Just what was the purpose of it? Many more questions could be posed. Cynically, my last one might be: Was it simply just the urge of a frustrated would-be film-maker?

There is in the program a long (12 columns,6 pages) academic essay by Giorgio Agamben, THE FACE. Mr Agamben is a contemporary Italian Philosopher. If the essay is present to help me to comprehend the wherewithal of the video technique exploration by the director or any other aspect of the production, it needs to be written in an English that is plainer. I have made several attempts at it and sadly, humiliatingly gave up. I am not alone, I have been told.

All in all then, the play does survive, mostly due to the expertise of the actors. I speak from a very complicated association of this "problem" play. I have seen this play many times, John Bell's production in the early seventies at Nimrod Street with Garry McDonald, Michael Long and Anna Volska; Richard Brooks production at the Q Theatre out at Penrith in the late seventies; Rex Cramphorn's in the eighties (he had several goes); and also productions by Richard Cotterell and Aubrey Mellor. Maybe the filtering through this knowledge kept me able in attending to the choices of the actors at Belvoir St.

These adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, RICHARD III and MEASURE FOR MEASURE, by two of Australia's leading directors, Simon Phillips and Benedict Andrews have been interesting journeys this year. One was a near masterpiece, the other an obfuscated experiment, both spinning on a revolve, a whirligig in time. Soon the Bell Shakespeare will give us a TWELFTH NIGHT. More to savour from this great contemporary playwright - the most produced playwright of the year!

Norrie Epstein, ‘Friendly Shakespeare’, (1993) Penguin Books, New York, 1993.


John said...

Kevin, I am indebted to you for your terrific description of the difficulties for the audience in finding a focus during Act III, scene i.The saddest aspect of the claustrophobic
action and feverish cinematic whisperings is that Claudio's big speech ("But to die , and go we know not where ...") -one of the great lyric moments of the play - gets smothered ; one is barely aware of it. This is emblematic
of a big problem with the production:
it is so 'high concept' that it has left some essential luggage on ground far from view - ours , or the camera's.
At first I felt Benedict Andrews had hit pay dirt.The wild partying in the motel room;the obsession with getting everything on camera ; the pillows disgorging their feathers in snowstorms across the giddily revolving stage ...decadent 'lite' but still, a promising preamble for a story about moral
corruption in the big city. But the motel room set begins to create confusion. It has to serve as Angelo's office and Claudio's cell, and the sense we need to have of Angelo as a remote figure is hampered by the stream of people who flit through it , pausing to use the various facilities. Claudio slumps on the floor of the shower recess , doors open all around him , and we have to remind ourselves that he is in prison , and not posing for a David Hockney spread. Motels of course have beds ,which here means that several of the characters can give us glimpses, at least, of the Viennese dirty dancing. But what's this , what's this...when they take off their tops , we see the body mikes and the wires - and we ask ourselves , " do we really need such amplification at Belvoir St?' And then Angelo is standing out front, having bribed and had his way with the object of his desire , and - wearing nothing but his undershorts and his mike - he wonders:
"What if she were to tongue me?"
It's funny , but the sense in the text- of a man in sudden fear that his "invisibility cloak" is slipping from him - goes down the Danube.
The way out of the dilemmas in ":MfM" is complicated ....all that stuff about the prisoners due to be executed makes tough demands on a cast. Here the trashing of the set by the prisoner Barnadine - a spectacular defiance of audience expectation - serves in the end to suggest that there is no point in trying to follow the story. Just go with the flow and enjoy the ride - you aren't gonna be asked to clean up. The noise of the sound design adds to our sense that Benedict Andrews sure knows how to put on a show.
Unfortunately , in the great scene that ensues , wherein Isabella disrupts a civic reception and cries out for "justice", we have trouble even seeing the aggrieved woman. Surely her demand is the focus here of the drama - but she is sometimes masked by the crash and crush of the guys with the cameras.
The production places exceptional demands on the actors. Toby Schmitz is perhaps an ideal actor for Mr Andrews : he throws himself into the whirl of the concept , finding inventive ways to physicalize rampant hedonism, and at the same time every word and thought come clear and vibrant to us. Robin McLeavy cuts through the chaos with a force that rivets us to her impassioned words. The sense of her horror at Claudio's pleas has a fierce, withering quality.
You can't forget a production like this haunts and challenges you. But it doesn't shake the conviction , that beneath the sound and fury , there is a play about arrogance and redemption that doesn't here make the final cut.

benny the bolshie said...

I saw the play on Tuesday night and what a howler! Methinks Benedict Andrews is quite the naked emperor - certainly he ensured that if the clothes of his characters were to be removed or exchanged this must happen repeatedly ad nauseam, meanwhile dragging his audience through the mire of every gratuitous detail.

Let's face it, not every director is going to respect Shakespeare's plays (despite the fact that respect is usually implicit even in the most radical of interpretations) and that freedom of interpretation is sacrosanct in theatre as in other arts, but here all Andrews seems to be capable of an iconoclastic, puerile contempt for the text and spirit of the play, not to mention the goodwill of his audience.

My friends (who saw his history plays) have already concluded that Benedict Andrews is a self-indulgent jackass. After Tuesday night I have to agree, with my impression of his MFM as being nothing more than a silly profanity. His psychopathic interpretation of Barnardine's character (aside from the scatalogical gratuitousness and unnecessary violence of the trashing scene) had to be way beyond the bard's intentions, who would surely have never had the Duke benignantly release a psychopath from prison in the final act, and Andrews' supposedly comical masturbation via a fragrant lily by Lucio was, rather than being a playful improvisation upon the fool's character, merely a revealing insight into Andrews' own narcissistic contempt for the inherent beauty of the play and for his audience, whom he mercilessly bludgeons with his incoherent anal-erotic preoccupations.

In sum, aside from the unsinkable integrity of Shakespeare's text and some occasional fine acting (sadly eclipsed by the directors' delinquent tendencies), Measure for Measure is, disappointingly, nothing more than a sensation-seeking travesty.

Dogana-R said...

Dear Kevin,
I read your blog with considerable interest. You enjoyed the production rather more than we did. So many of the actors lisped! Toby Schmitz was recklessly self-indulgent and therefore, ultimately, tiresome.
The chief stylistic impoverishment of this production is the excessive use of the video. It meant the actors had to play to a camera – often from the POV of the bathroom – instead of to a living audience which has assembled to see an entire stage and the actors on it. Movies choose the point of view, but an audience experience is to see an entire stage and a good director, like a good painter, guides one’s eye. And why is the Claudio/Isabella scene played in the dark? Because, I imagine, the director wanted to allude to film noir. Who goes to the theatre to see a movie? I’ve no quarrel with using video sparingly, as the recent German Hamlet did in ‘holding the mirror up to nature’, as the Bell Company Troilus & Cressida did (to evoke war as seen by the media) or indeed as did Phillips at the MTC Richard III where it reflected TV coverage of politics. But over-reliance on it is diminishing. The audience is forced to watch the screen because one can’t see what is going on stage.
Keep up the excellent work.

Mr Mink said...

Kevin, there has already been a considerable volume of useful comment on this performance/play on your blog. Most would have to be said to be negative and I would generally agree with it. Not being familiar with/ever having read the play there were no nuances to be perceived by me. However the almost immediate intrusion of the onstage video completely annoyed me and I wondered whether Mr Andrews was attempting broadly to re-imagine Mr Shakespeare for the YouTube generation. Okay the play is one of the "problem plays" but did he have to go that far and did he really add anything to it as a result? Frankly speaking of course the answer is no -- others speak of the annoying fact that in many scenes the video operator blocks the view of the performer/s and the audience is forced to crane to look at the screens to see what is going on. This is obviously an alienatory rather than participatory experience for the audience. There I was thinking that the middle of row B was to be a choice position for a Belvoir subscriber who generally prefers to be up close and personal rather than the distance perspective. Boy was I wrong as I could not concentrate on the actors because of the stupid video operator often being in between and I had to turn my head to check the screens -- if I could be bothered. After the destruction of the bathroom and the faecal smearing activities of Barnadine I wondered how in hell they could possibly bridge to the end of the play without a further interval simply to clean up! This was definitely a case of over playing it for the "shock and awe" impact. Obviously one can only blame Will for the script and the morality of the Duke letting the game go on for so long. And for me the rather rushed and unclear wedding at the end. It was like one of those murder mysteries on TV where you still do not really have any idea what has happened but there is a two-minute rapup to resolve everything. This was definitely the "lowlight" of the Belvoir season so far this year for myself and my friend.

Mr Mink said...

Kevin, having mentioned the YouTube generation aspects of the production I must also mention that I was somewhat taken aback by the YouTube clip at the top of your piace. It certainly tries to make the production, in best Hollywood jump editing fashion of trailers, to look like some sort of porno or romp. And needless to say the fact that Benedict Andrews appears in the same font size as William Shakespeare -- truly the era of the "celebrity" director!

Anonymous said...

Having subjected myself to Mr Andrews' Julius Caesar and War of the Roses (or their first halves to be more accurate), there was no way I was going to do so again in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Unfortunately, his self-indulgence is supported by the theatrical and media industries. You've got to wonder not just about how he got to be in such an influential position but about why those in a position to do so put him there.