Tragedy and comedy rub up against one another in Dominic Dromgoole’s Measure for Measure: his final production as Artistic Director at the Globe.
Measure for Measure is a play which, of all Shakespeare’s work, most explicitly deals with difficult philosophical issues: political and sexual power, effective rule, the nature of justice, patriarchy, puritanical prurience and moral hypocrisy are all broached. On the evening which I saw the performance, an oppressive heat provided the appropriate backdrop to Dromgoole’s dramatization of these ideas. Lasting well into the night, the febrile atmosphere coalesced around bawdy music which began the play, and continued throughout it.
The heat and a spirit of anarchy in the face of oppression, in fact, rather threatened to overwhelm the play’s icy puritanical impulses. Dean Nolan’s Elbow provided several moments of virtuoso physical comedy, whilst Petra Massey’s Mistress Overdone lived up to her name, haranguing other characters and engaging in acrobatic copulation at every opportunity. Brendan O’Hara’s Lucio was also a brilliant stalking and effete presence throughout the performance.
The puritanical pushback to this unruliness came not only from Kurt Egyiawan’s conflicted Angelo but also Mariah Gale: a pious, unimpeachable Isabella– perhaps the only character in the play who is not morally compromised in some way. The tonal balance struck by Dromgoole between these different elements was skilful, the raucous comedy proving an appropriate foil to the dark sexual machinations between Angelo and Isabella.
Measure for Measure’s conclusion is an unavoidable difficulty, and this production did not quite pick up enough momentum to drive over the play’s bizarre ending. Dromgoole tried something interesting, however, with the conclusion, inverting Marx’s famous dictum. Having escaped the lecherous advances of one authority figure, Isabella must fall into the arms of another. Firstly, this possibility is treated as comic farce and then it transmutes into quasi-tragedy; the Duke’s awkward and bungled initial proposition is met with laughs from the audience, Isabella visibly stunned at the proposal; whilst after his second attempt Gale’s expression is something like a cross between wonderment and grief—as a mournful strings lead into the final ritual Globe dance.