Bard’s Measure For Measure reveals an even dirtier side

Measure for Measure - Bard on the Beach
Photography by David Blue

Set in the vivaciously immoral New Orleans red light district of 1900s Storyville, John Murphy’s “Measure for Measure” – showing now until September 13th at Bard on the Beach – oozes with bold sexuality amidst a score of tantalizing original jazz that makes for a must see experience.

The play’s Shakespearean theme of repression against expression fits so seamlessly into the juxtaposed world of strict Victorian law and outlandish Mardi Gras frivolity, that perhaps Shakespeare would have set it in the era himself had he had the chance.  Director John Murphy constantly reminds us of Shakespeare’s relevance through the ages, creating parallels between Elizabethan England, 1900s New Orleans and our current society today by highlighting issues such as danger within the absolution of thought and combining church and state. Considering the time at which the play was written, it makes some pretty bold comments about the hypocrisy of society that still resonate today. The dirty jokes that made Elizabethans laugh still work on us too, proving that maybe times haven’t changed much at all; it’s definitely made clear that provocative language and giant dildo humour can evoke a snigger in us all as much as any groundling. Oh, did I mention that it might be best to leave the children at home for this one?

The injection of voodoo magic into this production not only modernises age old concerns, but brings New Orleans to life through an eclectic host of talented actor-musicians, Mara Gottler’s wonderfully outlandish costumes and effectively toned lighting from Adrian Muir, whilst making Shakespeare fresh and accessible for audiences old and new.

The classic tale tells the story of an unlawful city in despair, whose Duke (Andrew Wheeler) calls upon the cold, puritanical Angelo (David Mackay) to restore law and order whilst he is away. Of course in true Shakespearean fashion, unbeknownst to Angelo, the Duke stays to observe his actions disguised as a friar. Angelo immediately shuts down all the brothels much to the dismay of renowned prostitute Mistress Overdone (Lois Anderson), Pompey (David Marr) her pimp and most of Storyville’s inhabitants. With laws in strict enforcement under Angelo’s order, Claudio (Luc Roderique) is sentenced to death for getting his fiancé pregnant and sends his sister Isabella (Sereana Malani), a novice nun, to beg for mercy. In an unexpected flare of passion for the innocent girl, Angelo, who “scarce confesses that his blood flows,” proposes a bargain: Isabella’s virginity for her brother’s life.

Malani portrays the strong-willed Isabella with complete believability and compassion against the hypocritical and power hungry Angelo, whilst Anton Lipovetsky and Lois Anderson thrive as the hilariously naughty Lucio and Mistress Overdone, both excelling in their musical numbers much to the delight of the at-capacity audience. It’s often hard to get lost within the language of Shakespeare, and too often the words will wash right over my head, but seasoned actor Bernard Cuffling (performing the role of Escarius) was a sheer pleasure to watch, and a lesson in perfect diction. In fact, seeing the play performed in a majority of poetic Southern accents was a refreshing change, which the actors later revealed to have brought out new expressions for them within the text too.

Tuesday nights at Bard are known as ‘Talk Back Tuesdays’, with each production featuring a post show talk with the cast. It was great to hear the perspective of those involved, and I will pass on a metaphor that stuck with me from the lips of actor Andrew Wheeler. Performing Shakespeare in a completely new way is like turning your socks inside out. It’s the same sock, but now it looks completely different. An audience member aptly pointed out however, that unlike most socks, Measure for Measure’s clean socks were dirtier on the inside!

If you have never seen this play performed, or any Shakespeare for that matter, I beg you to go and see this lively, music filled interpretation. I can guarantee that you won’t regret turning your socks inside out.