Kentucky Fried Shakespeare. It’s a mighty fine way o’ looking at ol’ Billy Shakes’ Measure for Measure, a play o’ moral contradiction and drunken farce. Swapped are the Vienna of the Danube for the Vienna of the Mississippi, Vincentio’s ducal status for mayoral, and the conservatism of 16th century Europe for the conservatism of parochial America. Director Cate Field has found a way of interpreting Shakespeare that makes it remarkably relevant and relatable.
The mark of excellent am-dram is you forgetting that it’s am-dram, and for most of the performance, I am happy to say the laymen had me blissfully unaware that this is but a histrionic hobby for them. Patriotic paraphernalia adorns the stage: a presidential desk set on a podium, straddled by stars and stripes, all housed in a theatre that looks like it was built for a barn dance hoedown. It is all topped off with a True Blood accent pervading the air, which actually works pretty well. Whether that’s because the Deep South accent is just as incomprehensible as Old English, or that they both share that biblical, roundabout way of saying something simple, it is surprising how much Shakespeare feels like it has been written for slack-jawed yokels.
The thematic extremes of the play were dealt with superbly. Measure for Measure is one of those Shakespearean anomalies, addressing the jarring moral and emotional conflicts embedded in a civilised society whilst making dirty whore jokes. To draw anything coherent out of it all is darn difficult, and directors normally come down on one side: either the giggles or the groans.
I am impressed, therefore, that the cast managed to make my heart bleed and sides split (though not simultaneously). Craig Finlay as Angelo and Jessica Reilly as Isabella were utterly compelling; particularly praiseworthy was Angelo’s indecent proposal to Isabella, very Clinton-cum-Lewinsky. Joseph Kenneway, James Reilly and Ida Peterson’s comic relief hit all the right notes. As bubble-gum-chomping slappers and drunken rednecks, they conveyed the comedic value of their characters with an inspired original spin.
The execution was, however, shoddy and feeble here and there. Simon Marie as Claudio, the persecuted lover doomed to die, mustered up a pretty glib sense of his character’s torment – as if he’d lost his Nintendo rather than his wife with child. Clare Horsham and Sara-Jayne Slack, in peripheral roles, had me straining to hear them and, when they did pump up the volume, had me wondering why on Earth their accents kept descending into a Scottish brogue. The most irritating thing by far was the bloody backing tracks: the opening scene was ruined by a nauseating power ballad. Generating a musical atmosphere is important, but at times it was if a poignant instrumental was filling in for an actor’s inability to convey sadness. Plus, as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t play vocal music louder than the actors. Understanding Shakespeare is hard enough without Avril Lavigne screeching from the speakers.
Measure for measure, as undeniably brilliant the concept was, the execution just wasn’t quite sharp enough to live up to the play’s potential.
Measure for Measure is showing at the North Wall Arts Centre until the 26th October, student tickets £11 and available here.
PHOTOS/ Oxford Theatre Guild