Measure For Measure
Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
until July 29
Reviewed by Mark Brown
One’s admiration for Glasgow’s annual Shakespeare festival, Bard In The Botanics, grows year-on-year. Artistic director Gordon Barr has progressively developed the summer programme of four plays from an impressive, but uneven, pro-am affair into an undeniably professional festival with an excellent ensemble of experienced and young actors.
The Bard Ensemble (as we might call them) are warrior actors, something like the travelling troubadour poets of medieval France. When they are indoors, in the beautiful Kibble Palace glasshouse (as they are in this Measure For Measure), the actors are in frighteningly close proximity to the audience. It takes a tremendous combination of skill and nerve to pull off such close quarters stagings of Shakespeare’s complex dramas.
The success of the festival isn’t down entirely to the considerable talents of the actors, however. Barr and his associate director Jennifer Dick deserve plenty of laurels for their stewardship of the programme, and, in particular, for their clever adaptations of the Bard of Stratford’s plays.
The current presentation of Measure For Measure is a particularly strong example of the festival’s skill in abbreviation. Barr has taken a play which Shakespeare wrote for more than 30 characters and reduced it to a sharp and intense drama of just five.
The director cuts, not to the chase, but to the quick as he feminises the wretched Claudio, who is sentenced to death for lechery by Angelo, the viciously puritanical deputy to the seemingly absent Vincentio, Duke of Vienna. Here it is Claudia (played movingly by Esme Bayley, who doubles splendidly as the rejuvenated and feminised court official Escalus) who is set to die, along with her unborn child, for the sin of becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
Particular praise is due to Adam Donaldson, who has, at the eleventh hour, stepped into the role of Angelo (replacing the indisposed James Boal). When the punitive functionary is faced with the novice Isabella (an anguished performance from the superb Nicole Cooper), pleading for the life of her desperate sister, Claudia, he finds himself lusting after the trainee nun. One can almost see his soul tear as Donaldson’s Angelo flagellates himself, in a fruitless attempt to stop himself from trying to blackmail Isabella into his bed.
As this brilliantly condensed intrigue unfolds, Kirk Bage’s Vincentio is going about Vienna disguised as a friar. Bage gives a typically excellent performance, full of regal authority and moral indignation, all the better to shock us in the play’s famously “open” ending; which Barr resolves with a powerful denouement that is in-keeping with this Bard season’s challenge to male-centrism and chauvinism.
It would take a ludicrously pedantic critic to ask why the Roman Catholic Viennese of the drama pray before an Eastern Orthodox cross. So I will.
However, this little flaw in the continuity of designer Carys Hobbs’s minimal set notwithstanding, this intelligently reduced Measure For Measure is a potent and captivating triumph.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 23, 2017
© Mark Brown