Rachel Horrocks reviews Measure for Measure produced by Gareth Owen and directed by Benji Bailey that went up December 1-3 at the Barron Theatre.
Measure for Measure is a play of extremes. Classed as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but dealing with questions of judicial corruption and sexual violence, the play is full of both beautiful speeches defending chastity and rude jokes about pimps and prostitutes. The Globe’s version this past summer played up the comic elements and the happily-ever-after ending, but last week’s production at the Barron took a much darker approach.
As we entered the theatre, we were greeted by the stark image of the Duke of Vienna (Nishant Raj) slumped over his desk under a tight spotlight. The minimalist tone persisted throughout the production, with the few key set pieces and props carried in and out smoothly and efficiently. Not unlike the Globe, the bareness of the theatre, combined with the simple yet effective set and lighting, managed to communicate a clear sense of place without becoming distracting.
The functionality of the production left us to focus on what was, overall, a set of very strong performances. Caterina Giammaressi’s tearful Isabella certainly stood out, as did Cate Kelly’s brief appearance as Mariana. Unfortunately, the male leads’ diction was weak, with Nishant Raj stumbling over the beginnings of lines and Oli Savage as an otherwise sympathetic Claudio frequently rushing through speeches. In contrast, Jared Liebmiller’s thoughtful portrayal revealed a depth to the villain Angelo that I had never seen before, and managed to grant the flawed character a measure of redemption without at all excusing what he had done.
The comic aspects of the play, although somewhat cut down, were some of my favourites. Andrew Chalmers as Elbow brought a wonderful sense of enthusiasm to the stage, perfectly balanced by the coolness of Louis Catliff’s Pompey. Noah Liebmiller as Lucio also created some much-needed comic relief, with a vibrant scarf thankfully distinguishing him from his brother. While the choice to focus on the darker elements of the main plotline made the comic elements seem peripheral to the story, the scenes were nonetheless amusing and entertaining.
This production of Measure for Measure, for the most part, was not one played for laughs. Benji Bailey’s directorial choice to leave the ending ambiguous, bringing the lights down on the Duke with his hand outstretched toward a weeping Isabella left us feeling that the corruption in Vienna’s government was far from over with the Duke’s return.
Overall, the highest praise I can give Bailey and his team is that they took a difficult play, chose a clear angle and made it work. Measure for Measure was a slick production full of strong performances, ultimately managing to take one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays and make it entertaining and thought-provoking.