Maybe you have to listen to Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order to get the full force of Measure for Measure’s shock value. After a stream of dynamic forceful women, beginning with Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou, continuing through Kate the Shrew and the two Portias, Julia and Viola and Rosalind, you might get used to a world comfortable with women driving events and controlling outcomes. And then there’s Measure for Measure, set in an alternate, inverted universe. The villain is Angelo, out to clean up the loose morals of fictionalized Vienna in the absence of its eccentric Duke, who takes the opportunity to roam about town disguised. Angelo starts his project by condemning to death a young man, Claudio, who has gotten his fiancee pregnant. When Claudio’s sister, a novice of the Order of St. Clare, comes to plead to Angelo for his life, Angelo becomes infatuated with her and tells her that he will only release her brother if she sleeps with him. After various misadventures, the Duke saves the day by marrying Isabella and forcing Angelo to marry Mariana, a young woman with whom he had been formerly engaged. All this is interweaved with the misadventures of Claudio’s silly friend Lucio and Pompey Bum, a local sometime pimp.

Isabella has all the makings of a classic Shakespearean heroine, especially in her outraged refusal to compromise her integrity by entertaining Angelo’s indecent proposal. But she’s not in a classic Shakespearean environment. By the play’s end, she has been threatened by the villain and “rescued” by the hero in full melodramatic fashion. She pleads and stands her ground, but she is a passive character focused on maintaining her dignity in a universe of bullies.

Measure For Measure is sordid and rather depressing much of the time, as Shakespeare ruthlessly explores the nature of vice and criminal depravity. Strong performances by the leading actors can add a lot to it – the Caedmon 1960 recording preserved John Gielgud’s memorable interpretation of Angelo. You can hear him practically choking on self-loathing as he advances on Isabella. Ralph Richardson played the Duke on the same recording with his own distinct brand of lofty distraction and Margaret Leighton was a magnificent Isabella, taken truly by surprise and utterly horrified by her predicament.

But there are no bright displays of thespian skill in the 1958 Argo recording. The actors stubbornly refuse (or are unable) to contribute saving layers of complexity to their characters – or rather, they allow nothing to get in the way of the formidably unattractive aspects of the characters as written. George Rylands softens his voice to make Angelo sound more youthful, but his vocal characterization sounds instead haughty and cold and there is no titanic struggle in his soul over his betrayal of principle. He gives us a shrill, whiny hypocrite, fully embracing the character’s immaturity and ugliness. Isabella, in the hands of Janette Richer, is youthful but bland and defiantly unheroic; Toby Richardson makes the Duke somber, noble and rather sad. It’s interesting to think that the Duke has some hidden grief that propels his actions, but Robertson can’t or won’t shape this into a compelling performance and I’m left to wonder what he had in mind, if anything. Anthony Jacobs (perhaps unintentionally) makes Lucio an older man – it’s interesting to hear him played as a roue; and Donald Beves repeats one of his signature roles with the Marlowe Society as Pompey with enthusiasm. But this is one of the more difficult recordings to get through in the series.

Measure For Measure with George Rylands, Janette Richer, Toby Robertson, Anthony Jacobs and Donald Beves.

 

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