Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: Review

Actors From The London Stage return to Notre Dame

As a consistent attendee of theater and performing arts opportunities offered on campus, I am always excited to see the Actors From The London Stage (AFTLS) perform. The company’s residency at the University of Notre Dame is comprised of one performance per semester. As part of an initiative started in 2002 by Peter Holland, the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies, to expand exposure of the community to William Shakespeare’s works as performance art, these ingenious performances do not limit themselves to Shakespeare’s popularly known plays. This year, during the first weekend of October, five actors performed William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure as part of AFTLS Fall Tour 2017.

In the play, the Duke leaves Angelo, his trusted and virtuous advisor, in charge of his dukedom and disguises himself as a friar in order to see the workings of his government and of the people from the outside. Angelo then strictly enforces the laws, but, when faced with temptation himself, forces himself on the sister of the man he has condemned to death for fornication. This harassment continues throughout the play and, indeed, is not ever punished, leaving Isabella, the victim, speechless as the lights blackout.

I have seen every AFTLS production since Spring Tour 2013 and have yet to be disappointed by the company’s performances and the clear theatrical and literary intelligence with which the shows are produced. As part of the vision of the company, there is not a single director but rather a series of “Associate Directors,” an “Academic Director,” and the five actors that work with one another to develop a driving thesis for a given show.

Measure for Measure’s Academic Director was none other than Dr. Peter Holland. I have had the wonderful opportunity this semester of taking a Shakespeare and film course with Dr. Holland. During tech-week for the show, he took a moment during class to talk about choices that were made in the production as well how scholars classify the play. Measure for Measure is known widely as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Originally conceived as a category in which to put plays that did not fit in the others (i.e. Historical, Tragedy, Comedy, and Romance), the phrase “problem plays” may also present a double meaning: that plays in this category present a set of problematic situations but may not necessarily propose a solution, opting instead to unsettle and provoke. To this end, the AFTLS production of Measure for Measure certainly was successful. The simultaneously light-hearted and provoking multi-character casting, a signature of AFTLS, as well as Anna Wright’s stunning performance as Isabella were the primary standouts of this show.

With only five actors for each show, double, triple, quadruple, and even quintuple casting is required for every play. Far from limiting the quality of the performance, the multiple-casting creates an unique opportunity for AFTLS to highlight both the skill of the actors and the comic physicality inherent in the texts. Though much of the comedy is derived from plays-on-words and various ironies, AFTLS adds a bit of physical meta-comedy by drawing attention at certain bright moments to changes of character and the creativity of how those transitions were blocked. This is a primary vehicle of success for this show as it serves to impress with its creativity as well as—by virtue of demanding that more attention be given to the blocking of the show than might otherwise be required—create generally seamless organizations of each of the scenes.

More than guiding the design of the movement of the production, the choices made in this multiple-casting style add an additional level of depth to thematic development. For example, Anna Wright plays both Isabella and Juliet, at once the lover and sister of Claudio. He, in turn, is played by Wela Mbusi, the same actor cast as the hypocrite stand-in Duke Angelo. This visual interconnection of the characters assists a potentially lay audience in seeing the ties of fate and textual thematic ideas between them.

Although each of the five members of this tour of AFTLS are strikingly talented, the standout performance for me was Anna Wright’s Isabella. Wright navigated the conflict between Catholic virtue, the sanctity of the soul in chastity, and the love shared between Isabella and her brother Claudio with apparent ease. Her performance was genuine and moving to be sure, but more than that, the brio with which she portrays a steadfast, self-aware, woman of God gave further weight to the unpunished harassment perpetrated by Angelo. These things, in tandem with the cooperation of the cast, worked to create a truly inspired performance.

Alexander Daugherty is a junior double-majoring Neuroscience & Behavior and English – Creative Writing. He lives in Fisher Hall and hopes one day to be a doctor and an author. He enjoys honest theater, string instruments, and any good story he can get his hands on. Contact him at alexander.p.daugherty.18@nd.edu.

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