Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bad Bard

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C & L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

If Laura Warner's critical consideration of Jill Barber caused some discussion, imagine what Mari-Beth Slade stirred up when she took on the Bard. Her dislike of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure brought on equal measure for measure in response.

Weighed Down by the Truth: Shakespeare by the Sea’s Measure for Measure

As an English literature major, this is difficult for me to admit, but here it is: I don’t like Shakespeare. I want to like him. I should like him. I often pretend to like him, but I don’t. It seems to me that Shakespeare focuses habitually on the lackluster narratives. In Romeo and Juliet, the love story between Romeo and Rosaline always distracted me from the main action. (Ditto for the three witches in Macbeth.) And I agree with Tom Stoppard and W.S. Gilbert that Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far more intriguing than a self-centered Danish Prince. Naturally, the Shakespearean productions I find most interesting are the ones which embrace and capitalize on the back story. Shakespeare by the Sea (SBTS) is usually quite adept at this, and so I had grand expectations for their rendition of Measure for Measure. Specifically, I’d hoped they would elaborate on the history between Angelo and Mariana, which in Shakespeare’s version happens largely outside the main plot. Generally, I’d hoped for any unexpected interpretation they could offer. I was disappointed.

A Shakespearean theatre company has limited material to work with, even if Shakespeare is one of the most prolific playwrights at 37 full length plays. You can’t do the crowd-pleasing Romeo and Juliet every year. There is an art to choosing which of The Bard’s comedies, tragedies or histories you perform and a quality company chooses their drama based on what’s relevant to the culture in which they’re performing. In this regard, Measure for Measure is an ideal choice. The play’s commentary on how power and pride affect the interpretation of truth and justice is still central to our society: from America’s economic crisis (which producers would have known when they chose the play) to the tragic shootings in Norway (which they could not have known)

You can normally count on top-notch acting from SBTS, but even this component fell short on August 6. Although they began the production by offering an advance apology that this was only the third run and would we please pardon any mistakes, this seemed amateurish, even for a relaxed outdoor production. After discussion with my theatre companion, we decided that the acting was overly dramatic. Because the lines are delivered as-written in Elizabethan English, many modern viewers rely on facial cues and tonal inflection to fully understand the nuances of the plot. Most of us can get the general idea of what’s happening, yet delivering the subtleties is the job of the Shakespearean thespian. SBTS neglected these subtleties by overacting each line.

As usual, the audience warm up, announcement of intermission, and conclusion (all elements outside the actual play) were caustic, funny, and original. Costuming was also spot-on. If this sounds like a consolation prize, it certainly isn’t meant to be; it is well-earned praise. Angelo’s bowtie, slicked-back hair, too-short white pants and nurse’s orthopedics set him off as the self-deluded dufus that he is. Isabella’s nun’s habit was also inventive; the beret adding a twist that could have been replicated to other areas of the production.

After seeing SBTS’s adaptation of Robin Hood last month, I admittedly had very high expectations. But the only commonality was the actors. If you’ve watched plays by small theatre companies, you’ll appreciate how odd it is to see a performer act one night as a convincing fool and the next as a condescending duke. Kudos to the artists for switching roles this easily! Within a 48 hour period, most of them had to execute three different characters.

This production was a reviewer’s nightmare in its blandness. Usually if something is not good, at least it’s interesting. Perhaps that’s the problem with SBTS’s Measure for Measure: it was OK, precisely OK. No horrific flub-ups, just boring acting that one would expect to see on public television at 2am. I can’t think of much more to say. I could slip into reviewing the script itself, but then that’s not really the point. However, I do think the Measure for Measure script is elegant and simple in its treatment of complex human issues.

I suppose my lack of opinion on this production fits me into the role of other women in Measure for Measure. My favorite line from the play comes from Act 2 Scene IV when Angelo says to Isabella “Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true” and then stomps off (the stomping happens in my mind, I think it was more of a stroll in SBTS’s version). In Measure for Measure, females are famously either silent or ignored. And once again, I’m confounded by the silence in what Shakespeare leaves out and what I’d hoped STBS would include. Does Isabella accept the Duke’s proposal of marriage in the final scene? Readers of Shakespeare are left to interpret the truth for themselves and the audience of SBTS does not receive any help in weighing the options.

- originally published on August 11, 2011 in Critics at Large.

– Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment