Simon Webb, Pippa Johnstone

The Honest Fishmongers’ spirited adaptation of Measure for Measure demonstrates that the themes of morality, sex, power, and justice that plagued Shakespeare’s era have yet to be resolved in our modern times. This play was performed at a bigger venue last summer at Bard on the Beach but the setting was creatively adjusted to New Orleans in the early 1900’s.

The alley-style seating at Pacific Theatre provides a more intimate venue for audience interaction. While the actors are interspersed in the aisles chatting with patrons, in bursts Vincentio, without warning, to announce his intended departure from Venice. The audience is converted into the Duke’s loyal subjects, as players and patrons alike listen to his opening speech. Upon the Duke’s exit, the house is treated to a curtain speech that has been cleverly adapted into Shakespearean English. This furthers the illusion that the venue has been transformed into a Venetian palace.

The plot of Measure for Measure may not be as well-known to the public as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. The formal and ornate language in this play further complicates understanding for some of the imagery that Shakespeare may have intended to convey. The Honest Fishmongers makes a commendable effort of immersing the audience and uses the intimate theatre space creatively.

However, the lighting choices for some scenes were too dim for the audience to fully appreciate the actor’s gestures. A synopsis in the theatre program may also have been helpful to guide the audience. Throughout the play, all characters are revealed to have conflicting morals, with a constant tug-of-war between desire and integrity.

These struggles are apparent from the onset. As the story opens, Duke Vincentio (valiantly portrayed by Ted Cole) announces that he is putting a draconian judge, Angelo (Simon Webb), in charge while he leaves Venice for a while. Later, it is revealed that Vincentio has a secret agenda.

He had been lax in his governance but fears to have his favourable reputation spoiled with the public. Thus, he wants Angelo to sanitize the city’s corruption during his absence. This raises the question of whether our hero, the Duke, is truly a righteous ruler or a cunning coward. Moreover, Vincentio doesn’t fully trust Angelo and intends to disguise himself as a friar so that he can spy on his subjects. He overhears their plights and intervenes to help, all the while concealing his identity until the end.

The honest Escalus (Alison Kelly) and obedient Provost (Michael Fera) benefit from his covert scrutiny. The Duke’s well-meaning deception is reminiscent of the popular reality show Undercover Boss and demonstrates how Shakespeare’s ideas are still being played out on the modern stage.

Emmelia Gordon, Jeff Gladstone
[Emmelia Gordon, Jeff Gladstone]

The Duke’s suspicions of Angelo are confirmed when the true nature of his spotless deputy is revealed. Webb portrays a truly detestable Angelo, outwardly incorruptible and a strict enforcer of the law. He makes no allowance for extenuating circumstances or acknowledgement of his own hypocrisy when he propositions a novice nun, Isabella (Julie McIsaac), for sex to save her condemned brother, Claudio (Jeff Gladstone).

Angelo’s puritanical behavior has caused the court to gossip that he has no interest in bodily pleasures. His speech confirms that he desires Isabella more for her pureness of virtue rather than just for her body. Angelo wishes to consume the very thing he pretends to be – virtuous – but which he is not.

The Duke (in disguise) learns of Angelo’s sinister intentions and concocts a plan to save Isabella and her unhappy brother. A series of contrived circumstances follow, wherein everyone is granted a somewhat joyful ending. McIsaac portrays Isabella with an innocence that is derived from her character’s genuine chastity, ignorant naïveté, blind conviction — or a combination of all three.

A culmination of weddings is a trademark of Shakespearean comedies. However, unlike the jubilant endings in other comedies, none of the parties in Measure for Measure are reciprocally happy. The less-than-exuberant finale could be conceived as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the status of marriage during that era.

Shakespeare, mastermind of nuance and innuendo, even introduces doubt into chaste Isabella’s character with her silent behavior at the conclusion of the play. When the Duke propositions Isabella for marriage, she gives no verbal answer. Does the audience interpret her silence as acceptance? If so, how committed was she to becoming a nun when she proclaimed to value her chastity above all else? If her silence was hesitation, was she in fear of the Duke’s power? Lastly, if her silence was rejection, is the Duke guilty for testing her virtue yet again by calling on her debt to him?

Julie McIsaac, Katharine Venour
[Julie McIsaac, Katharine Venour]

These are heavy and dark themes to explore, especially in a play lasting over two hours. Fortunately, comic relief is provided by two memorable characters, the clown Pompey (Emmelia Gordon) and Claudio’s loud-mouthed friend, Lucio (Peter Anderson). Gordon and Anderson both give larger-than-life, engaging performances, despite their roles as minor characters. Their interaction with the audience was especially vivid given the intimate theatre space.

Measure for Measure is traditionally classified as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. While this type of drama seeks to explore contemporary social problems, no true resolution is given and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions. This dark comedy directed by Kevin Bennett continues at Pacific Theatre through February 8.

Photos by Ron Reed.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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