Friday, August 16, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Measure for Measure and Mary Stuart

By coincidence or karma, the two plays we saw last night were both about power: the lust for it and the consequences of it.  Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Schiller's Mary Stuart (in a new translation by Peter Oswald) both look at what happens when people try to grasp for something that is invisible and intangible.

Measure for Measure, directed by Stratford veteran Martha Henry, was placed in post-war Vienna and tells the tale of the Duke Vincentio enforcing strict moral laws, including the death penalty for having sex out of wedlock.  Seriously.  Just such a case has arisen; Claudio and Juliet have visible proof that they have been engaging in pre-marital sex, and the unhappy couple face the gallows.  And in a test of his own power structure, the Duke decides to take off for the far reaches, turning power over to his deputy Angelo, only so that he -- the Duke -- can sneak back into town disguised as a friar and see how Angelo is doing with his new-found powers.

As expected, Angelo makes a hash of it.  Isabel, a nun and the sister of Claudio, pleads with Angelo to grant her brother clemency.  Sure, replies Angelo... if you'll sleep with me.

The story goes on from there in typical Shakespearean semi-comic fashion, concluding with all being worked out, [spoiler alert] the young lovers being saved, and Angelo getting his comeuppance.  There are the usual comic characters, including Elbow, a constable who does a nice bit of reminding us of the constable in Young Frankenstein.

Ms. Henry's direction is smooth and swift, and the cast, as always, is comfortable in bringing out the nuances of Shakespeare's language, even if it does -- as happens to me -- take a few moments for my Shakespeare translation device to kick in.

The point of the play is that political hypocrisy and sexual misconduct is as universal as ever in high office.  We all recognize the characters here; we've seen them paraded across cable TV and Buzzfeed, and there's a cottage industry of unmasking the anti-abortion congressman who paid for his mistress's two abortions or the anti-gay crusader hiring a well-muscled "intern" to travel with him to Aruba.  Shakespeare and Ms. Henry and the cast do a neat job with it.  My only quibble is that Shakespeare himself seems to exact some rather intentional cruelty on sympathetic characters; for instance, allowing Isabel to think that her brother has been executed until the very last minute, and the Duke colluding on this falsehood.  If we are to be relieved by the happy outcome, it's a bit of a torture to mete it out in such small measures.


Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned and then executed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587.  There's no record of them ever meeting face to face to work out their claims to the English throne, so Friedrich Schiller, the Romantic poet, gave us a fictional "what if" in his play Mary Stuart. In this new version by Peter Oswald and directed by Antoni Cimolino, the queens meet on a field of battle -- literally -- and the outcome, while never in doubt by history's telling, becomes a drama about power, gender politics, and religious fanaticism that sounds awfully familiar to the audience in the 21st century.

Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna, both Stratford stalwarts, take on their roles as dueling queens with gusto, and although I was unfamiliar with the play before I saw it, I can imagine that both Schiller and Oswald had fun imagining what these two powerful personalities had to say to each other because it truly comes across in the dialogue and Mr. Cimolino's inventive blocking.

As a tale for our age, it's not hard to grasp the connection between the hard-core religious zealots of that time -- Catholic vs. Protestant -- and our own.  People who are willing to kill and die for their faith is nothing new and nothing the theatre hasn't dealt with before, but we Westerners -- the "enlightened ones" -- like to think that it's only those Others who do such crazy things such as invite martyrdom and suicide or incite rioting against the infidels and blasphemers.  Even when you take into consideration the Crusades and the Inquisition, those are thought of as both medieval and, well, uncivilized.  But the brutality of the faith ran strong in 16th century Britain, and you can't turn on the TV or the internet today and see its descendants carrying forth against the abortionists and the radical homosexuals.

Mary and Elizabeth were rivals not just for the throne but for the faith.  We know how that turned out, but we're really haven't changed much since then.

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