Measure for Measure (Cygnet Youth Theatre Company, Exeter)

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays: neither comedy nor tragedy, but a meditation on power, that ends on a question mark. 

If it were written now, questions might arise about its taste. At its core, nun escapes rape; dying brother asks nun to save him through prostitution; Duke chooses nun for bride; nun says no. Anyone who has seen the film “Breaking the Waves” will know that the day of the idiotic dilemma is not past – and they will probably be unsurprised to know that critics through the centuries have berated the nun for the choices she makes. 

To me in 2007, Don Angelo is a kent face. He is the man of the Moral Right, who guards a hypocritical secret and has a down on the ‘low life’ that grows harsher the more secrets he hides. It is the Duke, who is harder to fathom. The Bush to Don Angelo’s Rumsfeld, he is the ruler who takes time out to discover what people really think of him – the ballot box in those days being a fevered dream, like, say, vaccination. Critics say that Shakespeare modelled the Duke on King James I/VI, who also went about in disguise from time to time. For most of the play, we see the Duke lurking as a ‘friar’, bristling whenever he hears a harsh word spoken against himself. 

Once back from holy orders, the Duke softens Don Angelo’s legalistic fist, using the secrets of the confessional to fine tune every punishment to the offender, and for some reason winning the love of his subjects thereby. So far so loyal, but “Measure for Measure” I think also contains a whiff of subversion. 

Absolute power is at heart only vanity, Shakespeare suggests, showing that the liberal Duke’s only outspoken critic must pay with his life PDQ. All human power has its limits too, its seems, and Shakespeare has Isabella walk away from the Duke’s vision of marital happiness and off the stage, to resume her life as a nun. 

This is an adventurous play to bring to the Fringe, and one that calls on the Cygnet Training Theatre’s gift for exploiting the comic potential of every situation and the talent of all its players for speaking well. Thanks to good acting, there is real drama in Isabella’s confrontations with the four men she must negotiate with in order to resume her quiet life. But this is a large cast and Venue 40 has a small stage: some scenes seemed a little static at times.

Kirby Grip at the Fringe

MF, 15 August 2007