Measure For Measure
Image Jon Green
Company: Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts
About (extract from director's notes)
Blood thou art blood
Set amongst the brothels, prisons and law courts of Shakespeare’s imagined Vienna, Measure For Measure is a profoundly urban play. In fact its ideas and problems are those of every city. How can we live together? What does a just society look like and can it only exist in theory? And why is there such a gulf between the ideas we have about ourselves and our animal natures? And yet for all its deep questions, the play is not a debate. These arguments are inescapably social and can only be truly explored in the flesh. The ideas resonate and collide painfully in the spaces between real human beings.
Often called a problem play or a dark comedy, Measure For Measure has troubled audiences for 400 years. Certainly it seems that Shakespeare’s work during this period was exploring a bleak vision of human sexuality, disease and cruelty. Harold Bloom calls the play the most nihilistic work in western literature… a comedy that destroys comedy. Filmmaker Mike Leigh calls it the mother of all plays that pose questions and give no answers and has returned to the play time and again as a touchstone for the disturbed outsiders in his films.
And yet, for all its darkness I do not believe the play is truly nihilistic, but rather a work of profound compassion. I feel Shakespeare’s almost involuntary sympathy for his characters in every line he has them speak. Compassion is in Shakespeare’s nature on a cellular level. There is a reason we spend more time in this play with the “low” characters than in any other in the cannon. His sympathy is with the pimps trying to make ends meet, with the unreformed and unrepentant criminals and with the hypocrites aware of their hypocrisy. Each character in the play is broken in some way and yet even the worst are afforded moments of grace. At unexpected moments, characters we may distrust profoundly turn to us across the footlights and share a part of their experience and we understand what it is like to be them.
Many productions have chosen to make this play easily digestible by pushing it to extremes. In a world full of nuns, politicians, prostitutes and friars it is all too easy to create stereotype. But this robs Shakespeare of his most fundamental quality, what Keats described as Negative Capability, that is his ability to be in mysteries, uncertainties, doubts without that irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Art must be more than a literal representation of the mundanity of our own lives, so while we have drawn deeply on our own experiences of urban life, the city we have created in this production is not our own. It is Vienna, London, Perth and an imagined space that lets us explore the funny, dark and unique questions of this beautiful text.
The production was made with second year WAAPA students and was not reviewed