Review: Measure for Measure, Human Interest Story ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 02, 2010

Review: Measure for Measure, Human Interest Story

With All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida and, sometimes, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is most often characterised as one of his "problem plays". This is an anachronistic label, placing Measure for Measure in the context of an early 20th century theatre conditioned by the socially-conscious plays of Shaw and Ibsen. But that doesn't mean that it's not a problem.

It's perhaps Shakespeare's strangest play: intellectually intriguing but dramaturgically absurd. Over the centuries it's prompted a wide variety of critical responses. Samuel Johnson thought the comic bits "very natural and pleasing", while the tragic themes showed "more labour than elegance"; Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought the whole play darkly disturbing, at once "disgusting" and "horrible". While William Hazlitt thought it a marvellous demonstration of natural morality, other critics saw it as variously an allegory of Christian doctrine on mercy and atonement, or as an example of extreme Jacobean negation and cynicism.

All these contradictory assessments suggest a play of considerable complexity: and there's no doubt that Measure for Measure is an intricate beast. It's probably best understood as an exploration of tragicomedy, which at the beginning of the 17th century was a new form. More than tragedy twisted to happy ending, tragicomedy was envisioned as a blending of disparate elements, a dramaturgy driven by contrast that through its violent juxtapositions sought to demonstrate the via media, the way of moderation and humane reason that tempers the extremes of idealism or cynicism, and which finds the middle path between divine justice and human mercy.

It's easy to see why this deeply problematic text would have attracted Benedict Andrews, perhaps the most intellectually rigorous of our directors. His Belvoir St production brings this baggy monster into the 21st century, rethinking it as a play of image and appearance. He presents Measure for Measure as a theatre of substitution, a mapping of lines of power and desire that expose the tensions of the modern state, especially in the perilous margins between private and social moralities.

Ralph Myers's set (beautifully lit, as one might expect, by Nick Schlieper) is a revolving hotel room surrounded by white curtains, which is plonked in the middle of a blank theatrical space. It's neither private nor public, but rather encompasses both spheres: the hotel room functions as an impersonal site of intimate sexual encounters, or becomes an incongruously private space in which the state makes its public pronouncements. On either side of the stage are two video screens which give us, in merciless close-up, images of the actors who are performing live in front of us. It's disconcerting how often the eye prefers the videoed image over the real actor, and this uneasy visual dance between raw and mediated performance underlines the tensions Andrews brings to this production.

The play begins with the Duke of Vienna, Vincentio (Robert Menzies) mysteriously absenting himself and giving all his authority to his deputy Angelo (Damon Gameau), a well-known hardliner on matters of sexual morality. As the Duke explains, Vienna is rife with vice and corruption, and he wishes to investigate this state of affairs as an anonymous observer, in disguise as a friar. Meanwhile Claudio (Chris Ryan) has impregnated Julietta (Maeve Dermody), and under Angelo's unyielding interpretation of the city's laws, is sentenced to death for fornication, despite his intention to marry his betrothed. When Claudio's sister Isabella (Robin McLeavy), urged by Claudio's louche friend Lucio (Tony Schmitz), pleads with Angelo for her brother's life, Angelo reveals his hypocrisy by striking a corrupt bargain: he will spare Claudio's life if Isabella surrenders her virginity to him.

This set-up heralds a comedy of substitutions: Isabella saves her chastity by sending the lovelorn Mariana (Helen Thomson) in her stead; Claudio is saved by the execution of another criminal. In the end, the Duke, having trapped his erring subjects in all their declared lies, throws off his disguise and marries everybody off in a series of judgments that demonstrate both mercy and justice. Finally, the Duke declares his own intention to marry the virtuous Isabella, who in the final dispensations of justice finds herself betrayed by the libidinous currents of power in the city.

Andrews has gathered an impressive cast, and they deliver excellent performances. Menzies is at his best as the Duke, who is played with a sardonic dignity that is disarmingly vulnerable, and there are excellent performances in particular from Frank Whitten as the old lord Escalus, Robin McLeavy as Isabella and Chris Ryan as Claudio. As Lucio, Toby Schmitz exploits the comedy of his role to the point of mugging: fun to watch most of the time, but I wished for more restraint.

What emerges unexpectedly, especially in the more successful first half, is an overpowering sense of human mortality: the production is dominated by a sense of the state as an arbiter of death. As the set itself is a human construction, an island of light propped in a space of edgeless darkness, so this humanly mediated justice plays out against a sense of supra-human fatality, the mortality that no human authority can control or escape. While in Elizabethan times justice was considered to be the worldly manifestation of divine justice, here justice seems profoundly secular, even existential, a human contrivance playing out against an abyss of meaninglessness. It's a sense that Shakespeare brought to fruition later in King Lear: here it's not so much expressed as intimated.

For all the power of this interpretation, the production never quite holds, and it finally founders on the clockwork mechanics of the play's heavy plotting (which is far more intricate than I can describe here). The text fairly creaks with contrivances that sit uncomfortably between the driving inevitability of tragedy and the nonsensical but satisfyingly symmetrical fictions of comedy. Within its absurd frame are, undeniably, dramatic treasures - highlights are the comic interludes where the cocky Lucio retails his shonky gossip about the Duke's corrupt bad habits to Vincentio himself, who fairly chokes with outrage but is unable to throw off his disguise, or the brilliant dialogue between Claudio and Isabella, where he begs and finally bullies her to sacrifice her virtue in order to save his life. But it never quite melds into a dramatic whole.

As it plays out its conceits, it seems more and more as if the production is at war with the play, attempting to drag it from its Jacobean roots into a contemporary reading that, for all the applied intelligence and passion, the play can't sustain. The fault is mostly Shakespeare's: without much more radical cutting than he attempts here, Andrews' elegant framing can't do much about the overwrought contrivances, which in the second half devolve interminably into the comedic tying up of loose ends that by then you no longer care about.

The effect is rather dizzying: close up, and especially in the details of the speeches, this play is all intelligence, rich with Shakespeare's wrought language and complex ideas: but from further back, at the cruder level of structure, it simply seems fudged. I suspect the primary problem with Measure for Measure is that, for all its teasing ambiguities, it's not a particularly good play: what becomes in the tragedies an organic marriage of action and idea is here tripping over its own form. But you can't deny its fascination, which - as is so often the case - stems as much from its flaws as its virtues. I suspect it's one of those plays that is much more interesting to think about than it is to watch.

Like Measure for Measure, Lucy Guerin's latest dance theatre piece, Human Interest Story, explores the mediation of human experience. Her recent works - Untrained and Corridor in particular - demonstrated an increasing preoccupation with spoken language, exploring speech as an imperative, controlling and directing dancers, or distorting it as sonic punctuation, so it became a pure physical act, dislocated from semantics. It's an approach that has more to do with contemporary poetry than with dramatic language, picking out the element in which we swim unthinkingly as communicative animals and revealing it to be abstract, arbitrary, opaque, even sinister.

Human Interest Story goes much further than her previous works, and is perhaps Guerin's bleakest and most powerful work yet. Paradoxically, it is also the funniest. It has an epic feel: it begins in the mundane comedy of domesticity, and winds out inexorably into an increasingly dark meditation on the limits of human autonomy. What, this dance seems to be asking, counts as an authentic human experience? Can we experience anything purely, or is all our being unconsciously mediated through the imperatives of the mass media? Is it possible to escape the wider conditioning of the consumerist society in which we live, or is its influence so saturating, so ubiquitous, that what we imagine as freedom can no longer exist?

Gideon Obarzanek's design is dominated by a huge television set, which in the opening sequences has its back to the audience. Behind it are six chairs, and behind them is a dark, edgeless space (one of the virtues of this production is Paul Jackson's miraculously subtle lighting, which seems almost to shape shadow as plastic matter). Six dancers emerge and begin to recite news stories in precise chorus, moving mechanistically, even neurotically, in tandem with their voices.

It's very funny, and yet it has an uneasy edge, as vastly different events and issues - Michael Jackson, climate change - are rendered down to identical packets of meaning (or meaninglessness) in the language of news stories. During the dance, the light lifts to reveal a vast, matte-black tank at the back of the stage. The tank emerges from the shadows and then vanishes throughout the show, opaque and threatening, a mute symbol of the war industry that underlies western capitalism like a bad conscience.

This opening sequence reminded me of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's discussion of the contemporary tabloid newspaper as the exemplary modernist text, in which each story - natural disaster, celebrity scandal, crime, war, politics - is endlessly interchangable with the others, stripped of context and translated into a module of prepackaged language that communicates nothing, because it is in fact designed not to communicate: it feeds a desire to consume, rather than to know.

Guerin explores how these mediations of reality reach into the intimacies of domesticity, shaping and refracting our personal lives. Her dancers become present not as abstract figures, literally playing themselves on stage and reminding us that dance is also a mediation, an illusion of reality which becomes, for the moments it exists, another simulacra. This is often purely comic: Stephanie Lake steps out in front of the others and speaks about cooking for her children and eating dinner in front of Master Chef in the hope that her culinary ineptitude will be transformed by the visual input of gourmet feasts. And there's an interlude where the television is turned around and Anton Enus ("the most fortunate vowel in showbusiness") reads a series of news stories about the dancers' private lives.

Interwoven with this comedy of the mundane is an increasing sense of anxiety, a subtext that is mostly expressed in the movement, which becomes in the second half of the dance the dominant mode of expression as speech is left behind. The hinge is an early BBC news report about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; against the dry, factual and (in ironic retrospect) inaccurately optimistic report the dancers circle about it in ever-increasing loops and spirals, in a sudden and surprisingly moving explosion of pure dance.

The dancers turn their attention to written language, laying newspapers precisely on the ground and then crumpling the paper and incorporating them into extensions of their bodies, as heartbeats, as violent expressions of anxiety. In this sequence, the crumpled pages end up stuffed inside the costume of one of the dancers: he becomes a grotesque, distorted figure who is violently disembowelled by the other dancers. It's a compelling image of the contemporary soul, if the soul is what Foucault described as the surface on which is scored the tracks of social power and authority - the human figure overloaded, sickened and finally destroyed by metastasising tumours of information.

The final sequence plays with impatience and refusal, teasing the boredom of the audience, as dancers begin a series of movements only to be interrupted by one of them stepping out of the dance to retie her hair or perhaps walk out into the auditorium, leaving the rest in frozen stasis, waiting for her return so they can resume the dance. This felt like the longest sequence, although I'm not sure that it was; by then I was so enfolded into the performance I had lost all sense of objective time.

From a ground of the absolutely familiar and the commonly understood, Guerin leaps into the world of the body, where gestures are ambiguous, opaque, mysterious. Often in Guerin's work it has seemed to me that the body becomes a site of rebellion against the tyranny of linguistic meaning, which figures as didactic and imperative: the dance, which spirals into pure abstractions out of the impure medium of dailiness in which she works, plays in tension against the legislating impulses of language and choreography, becoming the physical expression of resistance and anarchy.

This seems much less the case in Human Interest Story, where it's clear that the gestures of the body are as mediated as spoken language: what we see are neurotic, truncated expressions of anxiety or violence, or the gestures of an illusory freedom which themselves are mediated through our systems of information and communication. They ultimately become expressions of our imprisonment in the economies of information and money in which we live. Which may be, for all its bleakness, no more than the truth.

Pictures: top: Benedict Andrews' Measure for Measure; bottom, Alisdair Macindoe (on floor), Jessica Wong, Stuart Shugg, Talitha Maslin and Stephanie Lake in Human Interest Story. Photo: Jeff Busby

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews. Set design by Ralph Myers, costume design by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composition and sound design by Stefan Gregory. With Maeve Dermody, Damon Gameau, Ashley Lyons, Robin McLeavy, Robert Menzies, Arky Michael, Colin Moody, Steve Rodgers, Chris Ryan, Toby Schmitz, Helen Thomson and Frank Whitten. Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney (Closed).

Human Interest Story, choreographed by Lucy Guerin. Set design by Gideon Obarzanek, realising design by Anna Cordingley, costume design by Paula Levis, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design by Jethro Woodward. Performed by Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Talitha Maslin, Harriet Ritchie, Stuart Shugg and Jessica Wong, with newscast by Anton Enus (World News Australia - SBS). Malthouse Theatre and Perth International Arts Festival, Merlyn Theatre. (Closed).


epistemysics said...

Interesting... I think I thought it melded together more than you did (Measure for Measure, this is), though I did have my reservations as well. At least I think I did/do - I can't remember what I wrote in my review and haven't the desire (or the time!) to read through it again.

Anyway, speaking of the "brilliant dialogue between Claudio and Isabella", have you got any idea why the lights were turned off? I still haven't figured that one out...

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help thinking the whole way through Human Interest Story that I was watching a year 12 HSC drama performance - it crammed too many elements and styles of theatre into a performance that should have primarily been about telling a story through movement.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi EP: I can't remember that the lights were turned off during that dialogue. But it could be that my memory is faulty.

And wow, Anon, really? I've never seen Year 12 students move with quite such discipline...

Alison Croggon said...

I felt ambiguous about it... Colin Moody's performance as Barnadine was powerful, especially in that scene where he destroyed the set, an explosion of the anarchy of the body that threatened to destroy the structure of the state. My first thought was of the 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoners in the Maze, when they smeared their cells with shit, and several of them died. The problem was that it led me nowhere in the play, beyond a generalised image of anarchic rebellion: the destruction happened, but the authority of the Duke remained exactly as it was. And Barnadine is no terrorist or freedom fighter. So to me it felt like another instance where the play and the production didn't quite meet. Though I suppose it could function as an image of futile resistance?

Anonymous said...

I too was left disappointed with Human Interest Story. The work began conceptually clear and honest in its construction, perhaps a little to clear, no room for imagination. The choreographers decision to flip the direction half way through, to perhaps fulfill a dance sequence desire i must admit, reminded me of simple school modern dance class. Sadly, seen it a hundred times.

Alison Croggon said...

Maybe (though I haven't seen this kind of thing a hundred times). Surely the argument of the piece carried through into the "pure" dance? It did for me, anyway. I was forcibly struck by how the argument about mediation infected the dance, as it were. Which is why I thought it bleak.