RSC Artistic Director talks about his production of Measure for Measure

What excites you about directing Measure for Measure?

It’s always astonishing how Shakespeare seems like a magnet attracting all the iron filings of whatever is going on in the world at the time. Measure for Measure has particular resonance today. Just look at the plot. A young woman appeals to a man in authority to save her brother’s life. He agrees on condition that she sleeps with him. When she threatens to expose him, he asks who would believe her. She turns to the audience and asks “To whom should I complain?” #METOO!

What influenced your decision to set the production in 20th century Vienna? 

We generally have little idea of what Vienna meant to Shakespeare, but it has very particular associations for us today. In the first decades of the 20th Century it was the birthplace of psychology as Freud was based there. It was also the centre of an explosion in thought, creativity and art.  Just think of the people who were working there: Mahler and Schoenberg, artists like Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoshka, and the advances in architecture, philosophy, and political thought. But it was also the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which would shortly collapse in the First World War along with many of the Royal Houses of Europe. The Sacred and the Profane sit closely together in that city. It had one of the great cathedrals, in St Stephens, but was also notorious for having some of the most successful brothels in Europe.

Those ingredients closely match the elements of the play Shakespeare describes in the London that he knew. His own theatre sat very close by some of the steps of Southwark. I hope the associations we will invoke in 1900s Vienna might match and illuminate the milieu he conjures in this play.

Stephen Brimson Lewis, RSC Director of Design, has designed the show.  How will it look?

The script reads like a film script. It’s very fast and has the pace of a thriller. It also feels like film noir, and we have tried to ensure that any set we have only enhances that sense, and does not hold up the action. Stephen has brilliantly captured both a sense of the essence of Vienna, and the swift change of location, in our new excitingly reconfigured  Royal Shakespeare Theatre auditorium.

It’s always exciting to work with someone you know very well and can trust. We have a shorthand which allows us to cut through quickly to what is essential. And we have complementary tastes I think. He always surprises me, and yet seems to fulfill exactly what I am looking for.

Measure for Measure is often described as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”  What are the challenges of directing it in the 21st Century?

The play has been called Shakespeare’s farewell to Comedy. It is certainly the darkest of the comedies. He wrote it shortly after writing Troilus and Cressida, which I directed last autumn. It doesn’t reach quite the rancid depths of that play, but it certainly probes about in some pretty murky ponds. But I think that makes the play very contemporary. The Jacobean period was a time of uncertainty. The world seemed to have lost its moorings. Moral absolutes were being questioned. I think we recognise that today. We are suspicious of neat happy endings. Life is not like that, and Shakespeare here seems to feel the same.

If people have seen previous productions of the play, how would you entice them to come and see this one?

We have an exceptional cast: including Antony Byrne as the Duke, Lucy Phelps as Isabella, Sandy Grierson as Angelo, Joseph Arkley as Lucio and James Cooney as Claudio, as well (as a complete bonus) both Amanda Harris and Clare Price delivering smaller roles. That is the joy of the ensemble. And they are all match fit having performed the first two plays in the summer season. I am very excited about the production and the play.

What do you think Lucy Phelps, Antony Byrne and Sandy Grierson will bring to the key roles of Isabella, The Duke and Angelo?

Their own peculiar genius.

Which of Shakespeare’s works have you left to tackle?  Is it your ambition to direct all of them?

Measure for Measure is our 27th production as we journey through the entire canon, since I took over as Artistic Director, and I think it is also the 28th Shakespeare play I have directed for the company. So I am just over 3/4 of the way through. Alfred J Prufrock, in TS Eliot’s poem, measured out his life in coffee spoons, I guess I have measured out mine in Shakespeare plays. I have been very lucky. It would be a shame not to finish.

Measure for Measure runs in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon between 28 June – 29 August 2019.


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