"Men moulded out of faults"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 26/03/17

Thanks to Exeter’s Cygnet Players I have, for the first time, encountered Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’. One of the ‘problem’ plays. Ostensibly a comedy. Hmm. I could devote this entire review to exploring the moral maze – or better – morass – that lies at the heart of the play. That would be most unfair on the gifted student actors so intelligently learning their craft at the New Theatre. I will content myself with observing that the central question, whether a beautiful young nun should relinquish her chastity to a corrupt official in order to save her brother’s life, has to be viewed in the light of the belief that the souls of both nun and brother would be eternally damned. A modern, secular ‘Oh, for pity’s sake, just sleep with him’ is not germane, and neither is my amazement that people then and now readily relinquish their own power to false leaders such as dukes and friars…

So – a problem play, indeed, steeped in notions of sin and virtue, mercy and justice, forgiveness and revenge, with women’s bodies bargaining chips and virginity a cause of lust. When Angelo asks, ‘Is this her fault or mine? / The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?’, I wanted to give a very dusty reply. Full credit, then to Director Alistair Ganley and his cast, for their strong and timely production. One only has to contemplate so-called ‘honour killings’ and visions of Paradise that include 72 virgins to know that there are many modern resonances.

A striking, simple set, dramatic lighting and stunning music (full credit to composer/musician Jake Sullivan) created a powerful atmosphere of religiosity where needed and light relief when relevant. Each actor played two or more parts with versatility and verve. Full marks to Jessica Parsons for her passionate, eloquent novice, Isabella, and her raddled old bawd, Mistress Overdone. That’s one heck of a contrast, but Jessica was not alone with that challenge. Guy Dennys gave us a fully-rounded portrait of the unbending Angelo, whose cruel intolerance heightened the drama of his fall from grace before his thoroughly believable shame and penitence, as well as the brutish, darkly humorous executioner, Abhorson.

Marissa Rowell played the lewd pimp Pompey, the upstanding, decent Provost, and the much wronged Mariana, not to mention a nun, with her characteristic energy and wit. Damian Schedler Cruz’s main part was the libertine Lucio, and he is to be commended for treading the fine line between interpreting the character as a lovable likely lad or a dislikeable degenerate. His blend of mischief and malice made Lucio complex, dark and interesting. Scott Simpson as Escalus showed an increasing compassion as his colleague Angelo became ever more draconian, and he played Claudio with real emotional intelligence. When he knelt weeping for his life before his resolute, inflexible sister, I was profoundly moved.

Jake Sullivan’s Duke and false Friar both emanated authority – that bestowed by the state and that believed to be of God. I thought, and not for the first time, that those who believe they are doing God’s work are capable of creating much mayhem and worse. Jake ‘s Duke was clever, witty and manipulative in his attempts to emulate the wisdom of Solomon. His self-justified, often cruel deceptions left me fervently hoping that Isabella eschewed his court and the nunnery and ran off to join a troupe of travelling players.

‘Measure for Measure’ goes on tour this spring and summer – check the website for details: www.cygnettheatre.co.uk

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