Departing artistic director Dominic Dromgoole bids farewell to the main stage of Shakespeare’s Globe with a “Measure for Measure” that demonstrates exactly why he’ll be missed. All the crowdpleasing color of Shakespeare’s Vienna is here, with character actors running rampant on and off the bare wooden stage, but there’s a strain of great thinking too. Mariah Gale’s remarkable Isabella puts in a display of quiet virtue in a production that excoriates both public displays of morality and pervy old men.
Dromgoole will officially bow out, as Shakespeare did, with “The Tempest” in February, staged in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. His successor — a daring, inspired choice — will be Kneehigh’s Emma Rice. She has one Shakespeare credit to her name to date. Ten years ago, so did Dromgoole.
No matter. He has made the place his own, pushing what had looked like a tourist trap to find a performance vocabulary of its own. The bare wooden stage is now reconfigured for every show. Historical costumes are customized into significance. Mock historical re-enactments are out. Great actors are in. It’s been a huge success: Box office is through the roof (or it would be, if there was one), and all without a penny of public subsidy. Globe shows are boisterous, rugged, silly, clear-sighted, even, on occasion, beautiful. Audiences love them.
All of that’s in evidence in “Measure for Measure.” It’s not a great Globe evening by any stretch, but it’s testament to the place’s reliability that even a problem play like this one can deliver in spades, and even given Dromgoole’s high-wire approach to the play. This is Shakespeare without a safety net.
At its center is Gale’s quakerish Isabella. A temperate and, yes, measured presence in a plain cornflower blue smock, she hardly speaks — so much so that the rest of the play threatens, initially, to drown her out.
Because Dromgoole’s Vienna is a riot. Dandies like Lucio (Brendan O’Hea, sporting the combover of the century) strut across the stage in inch-high-heels. Trevor Fox’s reptilian pimp Pompey slithers hither and thither, and Petra Massey’s Mistress Overdone pumps her crotch at all and sundry. It’s noisy, it’s earthy, it’s unruly. All of life is here, with incontinent pissheads passed out in the corner and posh partyboys with their pants round their ankles (Dennis Herdman has the ballsiest of cameos). This is precisely what the Globe audience comes to see: actors off the leash, Pythonesque silliness, theater as a guilty pleasure. It’s a hoot.
Out to combat this impropriety in the Duke’s absence, Kurt Egyiawan’s upright Angelo puts on a show of public morality. Puritan police manhandle women and ransack two whorehouses in the groundling’s yard. (Two miles away, police raids on seedy, spice-of-life Soho have become routine.)
Joel MacCormack’s Claudio, Isabella’s baby-faced brother, gets caught up in all this as a decent kid with a pregnant young girlfriend. He finds himself facing execution. Angelo insists on absolute justice, despite Isabella’s pleading — and what’s justice in such exceptional cases except a show or public deterrent. His Puritanism is just as much a sham: behind closed doors, he gives in to temptation, grappling towards rape before catching himself.
Isabella, meanwhile, is a picture of unshowy morality and, surrounded by showboating sinners and paragon saints, that’s a daredevil’s choice. Gale enters the play unarmed: drab costume, no character tics, no audience interaction — none of the things that groundlings go in for. She’s the waterbiscuit on the cheese board and for a long while, we hardly even clock her, a case of the bawdy and the boring.
Then she digs in. Gale stands her ground and implores Angelo, argues with Angelo, throws Angelo off her and then publicly outs him as a fraud and a letch. She’s resolute and implacable, a bit earnest but mighty, quietude made commanding. Remember Chris Pratt and his raptors? Gale pulls off the Shakespearian equivalent.
That rounds off the production’s feminist charge. Throughout, its men have touched women uninvited. Lucio lets his hand rest on a nun’s breast; Angelo ruffles his way under Isabella’s skirt. Even Dominic Rowan’s Duke Vicentio, who flees office out of stage fright and dons the stupidest Brother Cadfael wig going, gets a bit touchy-feely on occasion. (He’s an over-excitable soul; his good deeds in disguise go to his head.) By the end, after an improper, impulsive proposition to Isabella that shocks her, he offers her his hand and waits for her to accept.
Domgroole doesn’t solve this play. I doubt any director could at the Globe, given its inherent sparseness. No matter. Here’s a corking good time, clear enough to make the play count, with a quite astonishing feat of acting at its heart.