We had the pleasure of seeing the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre production of Measure for Measure at UCLA's Freud Theatre. This remarkable company strives for authentic Shakespearean performances using original practices including all male actors, period musical prelude and interludes, and three-sided stage configuration. Their diction, acting, and direction truly make Shakespeare come alive (as we had discovered two years ago in their outstanding performance of Twelfth Night). Actor and Artistic Director Mark Rylance, who last year played an unforgettable Olivia, this year wore trousers (or at least a robe), playing the Duke (who spends most of the play disguised as a friar). He portrayed him with impeccable comic timing, on occasion blustering into a royal rage but then suddenly remembering his disguise and fumbling back into character. Edward Hogg wore the dress, playing a cerebral Isabella, variously expressing intimidation, indignation, and reluctant forgiveness with perfectly pitched nuance inside the tight scope of his austere character. Liam Brennan portrayed a complex Angelo, boxed in by devotion to the law and slowly undone by succumbing to the temptations of power, difficult but successful performance ringing true in the character's strange amalgam of rectitude and villainy. Several others were notable: Colin Hurley as Lucio (what Shakespeare called "a fantastic" and what we might call a good ol' boy and a player), delivering well-timed comic asides like small grenades; John Dougall as Pompey, speaking wry cynicism to power; and Roger McKern as Barnardine, the cantankerous prisoner too perpetually drunk to be executed. All in all, the whole cast were excellent.
When UCLA had been advertising the play, their season brochure and radio ads described Measure for Measure as a "light-hearted comedy", which struck me as very odd as I remembered it being rather heavy and not very comical. (In fact, I wondered whether the copywriter even knew the play.) I noticed that in the last week before it opened, the radio ads had changed to describing it as a "subversive comedy". Structurally, the play is arguably a comedy in that everyone is more or less happily married off in the end, but this is not your typical light romantic comedy. The play deals with profound themes of justice versus mercy, and the crucial moment in the play is the confrontation between Angelo and Isabella, where he forces on her the choice of her chastity or her brother's life. She speaks truth to power, but he counters that given his power, "say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true". Not exactly the stuff of comedy. This tension between comedic form and the dramatic moment of the subject makes the play difficult, and presents some hard choices for a director. Is Angelo a puritanical villain, or a virtuous man brought down by lust? Is the Duke a wise and strong ruler, or does he cop out in letting Angelo be the bad cop? And what might Shakespeare himself be saying about strict moral laws? Needless to say there is a lot of scope for a director to take this in interesting directions to overlay current relevance. But that's not the mission of the Globe Theatre, who strive for the authenticity of Shakespeare's time. They chose to emphasize the comedy, not only through the truly comic characters (such as Lucio and Barnardine), but through creative comic relief in interpreting the dramatic scenes (for instance, Angelo's momentary pause and arched eyebrow in II:iv when Isabella enters for the fateful confrontation, saying to Angelo "I am come to know your pleasure"). The Duke is portrayed as a bit doddering and befuddled, adding comic opportunity and lightening his character. (He even makes light of her non-response to his proposal in the end.) This provides balance (and even tips to the comic side) against an unflinchingly austere Isabella, and earnest dramatic portrayals of Claudio, Mariana, and Juliet. The result is a very enjoyable performance that makes you laugh but leave with a slightly unsettled feeling (not unlike the off-note of Malvolio's curse at the end of Twelfth Night), to wrestle with and come to your own resolutions about the themes. And perhaps that is exactly how the Bard intended it.