Measure for Measure a delightfully ambiguous production

Clockwise from left, Geraint Wyn Davies, Tom Rooney and Carmen Grant. Photo by Don Dixon

 

Measure for Measure
Stratford Festival
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry
Tom Patterson Theatre
Runs until September 21
Approximate running time: 3 hours (with one interval)
Tickets: or online www.stratfordfestival.ca

The late Roger Ebert once wisely observed that, "No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad."

For the purposes of reviewing this and other Stratford Festival productions, let’s rephrase that somewhat to read, “No play with Brian Tree in any kind of role should be missed.”

So audiences are being warned well in advance – if they pass on catching a glimpse of Tree’s comic genius, the complex ambiguities of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and a bravado performance by Geraint Why Davies, they do so at their own peril.

While Tree’s role as the militantly fastidious, by-the-book constable Elbow is in support of the main characters, it nonetheless provides plenty of opportunities to revel in his well-honed comedic skills, both in the physical and auditory senses.

Besides, it is palpable evidence that one of the Bard’s so-called problem plays is indeed a comedy, despite its largely tragic overtones.

Whatever the description, it is excellent fare with a company of actors offering up a delightful range of characterizations; a bonus when one considers the play’s three hour length. In addition to her well-paced and thoughtful direction, Martha Henry also made a wise choice in setting the story in 1949 Vienna, although one could also envision it taking place in 2013, given the duplicitous nature of one of the lead characters Angelo (Tom Rooney) – an unyielding authority figure with a secretive penchant for naughtiness on the side.

It is a juicy story that one can sink his or her teeth into and a theme that is simply ageless. But there is much more to relish in this production.

Just knowing designer John Pennoyer was inspired by such 1940s classic film noir outings as Carol Reed’s marvelously eerie The Third Man, makes the look of this particular version of Measure for Measure a real treat – a visually compelling adaptation.

Henry directs with controlled assuredness, doing justice to the rich text, ensuring the audience understands the ambiguity of its central characters, not simply Rooney’s undeniably creepy Angelo. Even though Geraint Wyn-Davies’ Duke Vincentio is seen largely as a man of goodness and order, he too suggests traces of all-too-human weaknesses like moral corruption and indecisiveness.

Wyn-Davies gives a powerful performance that never falters, both as the Duke and in his disguise as a friar. Although the facial features remain the same, albeit framed by glasses, this is no hokey Clark Kent/Superman transformation. He is convincing in both roles, delivering his lines as two distinctly different individuals, with touches of drama and wit.

Stephen Quimette as yet another two-faced villain is superb and as a fraud, liar and turncoat, offers some of the most delightful dialogue with gusto:

Behold, behold. where Madam Mitigation comes! I
have purchased as many diseases under her roof as come to—

As Pompey, a man claiming to be merely a barman but clearly more of a “bawd”, Randy Hughson tosses his lines about with wild abandon in another delightful comic performance:

O, the better, sir; for he that drinks all night,
and is hanged betimes in the morning, may sleep the
sounder all the next day.

The tragedy of the work is best exemplified by Carmen Grant’s religiously devout Isabella, sister to the doomed Claudio (Christopher Prentice), sentenced to beheading by the draconian Angelo for his promiscuous behavior. Grant is up to the challenge.

At three hours, it is indeed a long production but well worth the time spent, if not simply for the pleasure of deciphering whether this, in the hands of a skilled director like Henry, is a comedy or a tragedy.

And, of course, who in their right mind would pass up on another chance to watch the master Brian Tree ply his wonderful comic trade. 

(Out of 4 Stars)

Geoff Dale is an Oxford County theatre reviewer and freelance writer/photographer.

 


 


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