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“Problem” is such a pedestrian word, isn’t it? A little bigger than issue; somewhat smaller than crisis. “Ah,” people say, crossing their arms and leaning back in their chairs. “Measure for Measure. A problem play.” And then they pass on, as though – as in stories of the occult – by naming this tragicomic confusion of a play a problem, its problematic-ness is somehow nullified.
They take a sip of tea, Shakespeare dealt with. Who’s next?
But wait, I want to say; we haven’t finished with Measure for Measure! I’d like to know what our problem with it is, exactly. Its difficulty has evolved over time, shifting with the fickle tastes of its audience. Two centuries ago, it was Angelo’s avoidance of the gallows which discomfited viewers. “[O]ur feelings of justice are grossly wounded in Angelo’s escape,” Coleridge complained, calling the play a “hateful work”. The juxtaposition of comic with solemn elements has been a point of contention, as well as the play’s didactic Christianity, which is attended by exchanges of surprisingly lewd wordplay (a contrast Peter Brook termed “Holy and Rough, [shown] almost schematically, side by side”). Most problematic of all is the shoehorning of a comic finale onto its finish, with a string of neatly paired couples lining the stage and a fretful silence in Isabella’s corner. Never has silence generated so much conversation. Isabella’s union with the Duke has been argued, in turn, to be jarringly comic, blithely romantic, horribly sinister. Each reading is as problematic as the next.
How has this silence, the reasoning which makes Isabella “rather [her]/ brother die by the law than [her] son… be/ unlawfully born”, the troublingly odd “bed trick”, in which Isabella’s place in Angelo’s bed is filled by Mariana, and “head trick”, in which Claudio’s head is replaced with one which is ‘as like almost to Claudio as himself’ – how have such worrisome moments been treated in the Young Vic’s current production of Measure for Measure, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins? Cleverly, I would argue, crossing my arms and leaning back in my chair. Unproblematically.
The production is given a modern jump-start with piles of blown-up sex dolls strewn across the set, through which the cast valiantly wades. These dolls are comically crude. Laugh-out-loud funny at times. And yet, in other moments, not funny at all. Tripping the actors up, obstructing them with horrifying gapes, cushioning them as they fall in brawls. They are both light and deeply dark, and their place in this inherently religious play is thought-provoking.
Many of the scenes are taped on a handheld camera and projected onto the back wall of the set, and, in consequence, such moments are lent an intimacy which theatre can occasionally lose. This scrutiny seems fitting in a production intent on laying things bare, on smoothing over the traditionally problematic aspects of the play. Romola Garai plays a passionate Isabella, Tom Edden is hugely entertaining as the punning Pompey, but the production is made as enjoyable as it is by Zubin Varla’s turn as Duke Vincentio.
In Varla’s portrayal, the Duke is an anxious but benign supervisor of the play’s strange proceedings. He orchestrates the “bed trick” and the “head trick” from the depths of his assumed habit, and his hypocrisy brings with it moments of comedy (“I love the people,” he says with an uneasy smile as he emerges from the pile of sex dolls at the start of the play). He is not a manipulator of Prospero’s ilk, nor the “duke of dark corners” that Lucio deems him; rather, he is a worried, hand-wringing man, determined for the play to end well (significantly, he is not the deity of past productions. Tyrone Guthrie at the Bristol Old Vic would have him “a figure of Almighty God; a stern and crafty father to Angelo, a stern but kind father to Claudio… and to Isabella, first a loving father and eventually, the Heavenly Bridegroom to whom at the beginning of the play she was betrothed”. He is not so righteous in Hill-Gibbins’ reading, thankfully). The happy ending is managed by forcibly pairing up everybody on stage (even, to our amusement, the prim Escalus with the huge, tattooed Barnardine), before the Duke propositions Isabella. Their reaction is one of incredulity, and Isabella’s silence is a surprised speechlessness. She is stunned, but not, as we have seen before, broken, or submissive. It is a neat reading of a wilfully open-ended finale.
Measure for Measure needn’t be condemned, then, for its mix of registers, its troubled messages. In doing so, we find ourselves, like Polonius, quibbling with definitions, rather than actually engaging with the writing. Perhaps the real difficulty is not in the play itself, but in our hair-tearing over it. E. M. W. Tillyard, from whom we inherit the idea of the Shakespearean problem play, by way of F. S. Boas, said that “it is anything but a satisfactory term, and I wish I knew a better”. He is right to have sought a way of understanding Shakespeare’s middle tragicomedies. They are problematic. But this umbrella term, the ugly double plosive of “problem play”, serves to simplify Measure for Measure’s fertile untidiness. So: let’s uncross our arms and rethink this exhausted label, as Joe Hill-Gibbins, dramaturg Zoe Svendsen and the rest of the team at the Young Vic have done. Problematic, yes. But a problem play no longer.
Measure For Measure continues at the Young Vic until Nov 14. Tickets are from £10-£35.