The Lace Market Theatre, an amateur venue in Nottingham’s historic Lace Market area, has a renowned history of programming some unusual and often unpredictable theatrical works and this week we are gifted with an interesting modern take on Shakespeare’s ‘dark comedy’ Measure For Measure written in 1601. They have also gone down the partial route of gender blind casting; more of which later.
So why is a play that is about control, abuse of power, sex, morality and justice (or lack thereof) called a dark comedy? Well, wise Shakespeare related internet sources helpfully proclaim thus: ‘Dark Comedy is also known as black comedy. It is a drama which believes that human beings exist in a purposeless universe where they are faced with forces which are beyond their control or understanding. It believes that morality and ethics, as well as intellectual values are meaningless, and that life is a tragic farce. A comedy has a happy ending. It has wit, humour, fun, joy, and laughter. On the other hand, a dark comedy is gloomy but can also have amusing scenes as well as wit and humour yet has an undercurrent of gloom and despair.. The comic elements in such play are pushed into the background by the tone and atmosphere of seriousness and gravity. Measure for Measure is also called a problem play and meant by Shakespeare to shock rather than to enchant. Measure for Measure is the darkest of the three dark comedies written by Shakespeare. It is the darkest in Elizabethan terms because it displays sexual promiscuity. Shakespeare’s massive sensibilities led him to explore different areas of human nature and though he did not give a solution, the choice of subject meant that he found it worth exploring.’ Let us hope that we do too as we settle into our seats whilst the pre-show action on stage depicts improvised street scenes not unlike a rowdy night populated by drunken revellers in Nottingham city centre.
The Lace Market production reflects upon our own many and varied modern sensibilities especially around the subjects of unwanted male-female sexual agitation and provocation, such as that proposed between bad boy Angelo (Chris Sims) and the novice nun Isabella (Summaya Mughal). Isabella is forced to plead for her brother Claudio’s (Gavin Gordon) death sentence by giving up her chastity and the play becomes very #Metoo as a critical tour de force. Are we still appalled by Angelo’s wicked suggestion and does bringing the play up to date, certainly through the excellent Lace Market Theatre set and costumes, help us to reach our own opinions as Angelo reminds Isabella that ‘no-one would believe her were she to report his proposal’. That all sounds so horribly current doesn’t it?
Even in this contemporary setting we still hear chilling and somewhat casual news of beheadings and executions for sex crimes. Controversially, maybe some in the audience will even side with the puritanical Lord Angelo as he has temporary rule in the Duke Vincenta’s absence. Once the Duke is allegedly off the scene Angelo starts to enforce forgotten laws. In Shakespeare’s original text the play’s set in the corrupt city of Vienna; a city and state that has become lawless and where people-traffickers, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes thrive. In the Lace Market Theatre production the action moves to Nottingham and the various locations are suggested through some excellent projections and bursts of ‘keeping it current’ breaking news visuals as the action unfolds.
To further the challenges of the questioning of male-female morals, this Lace Market Theatre production team directed by Hazel Salisbury and Laurie Owen, have decided to cast two important roles gender blind. So we have Sarah Burgin convincing us as Duke Vincentia (feminised from Vincentio but oddly still retaining the male form title of Duke) and in a smaller role Alison Hope performs as Pompey Bum who is Mistress Overdone’s (Dolores Anass – yes it took me a while to realise that it reads as The Law Is An Ass) bar person and helps with the pimping. Pompey’s belief system is that the only way they can survive as a poor person is by turning to crime. Hope can always be relied upon to inject some light relief into any role she takes on and her Pompey strikes no bum notes in this matter. See what I hath done there?
The directors have wisely chosen to make some cuts to what can be experienced as a long show (it finishes around 10pm) and many of the arcane jokes and comical scenes that must’ve had ’em rolling in the shit and sawdust in Shakespeare’s day have been thankfully given the chop.
The quality of performance in Measure For Measure is generally well-done and swiftly paced. The principal actors, Gavin Gordon, Sarah Burgin and especially Chris Sims and Summaya Mughal are excellent in their command of William Shakespeare’s language and make their characters’ journeys affecting and comprehensible. Sims wisely eschews any thoughts of making Angelo too Machiavellian and goes for a more subtle approach. Mughal’s key speeches and acting are uniformly top class and Gordon is very moving in his depiction of the jailed and maligned brother Claudio. Burgin’s casting proves a satisfactory one and the choice of a female Duke works especially well in the scenes where she pretends to be a nun in order to survey the characters affected by Angelo’s mis-handling of the law under his tenure. The supporting cast are excellent with some cast members showing particularly interesting levels of creativity in their interpretations of the more comical roles.
Measure For Measure isn’t done very often and so, if you love your Shakespeare in modern dress and 400 year-old ideas both amoral and moral that still saturate our society and intrigue our intellects, go see this quality amateur performance at The Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 29th April.