“the glasses where they view themselves”

04/08/2010 at 7:07 pm Leave a comment

Measure For Measure, presented by Company B, Belvoir St Theatre, July 2010

After the play finished, with my mind spinning I walked a few blocks through the rain to this underground club and momentarily found myself on the dance floor almost re-enacting the first scene where Lucio is getting messy with the women. Although they weren’t whores in the club of course, and I wasn’t in my underpants in a hotel room; but the energy was just that. Boozy boys with impossible fringes, saucy girls mixing coyly in an all-out hedonistic grind to some loud indie-pop music. You can find these places across the city underground if you know where to look. Such was the detailed polish of the reflective surface this play presents on what we call ‘civilisation’; from the opening moments to the final bleak and absurd tableau there are recognisable people and dark situations which we’d rather not think about too much. It peers into secret corners.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because the drug-fuelled-orgy wasn’t quite the first scene; the real prologue is the catalyst for everything. It begins with a kiss, an act of love, a moment intimately broadcast for all to share; and such an act sends such ripples in motion to take this audience, this voyeur into the darkest fathoms of human degradation. Places where corrupt officials bargain with the lives of their subjects; where incarceration brings an otherwise happy man unto his knees with despair and disdain for the ones who love him most; where notions of innocence or guilt fall on the knife’s edge of a whim, or a word edgeways – where the sacred becomes profane, and the vulgar become blessed. As comedies go – it’s a malcontent. No wonder the play gets referred to as a problem, it asks questions from five hundred years ago that we still put in the too-hard-basket.

Save for a few devices of meta-theatre, everything is portrayed with intense realism, from the flushing toilet and working shower to the police uniforms and *ahem* lingerie. I’m sure that’s what all novice nuns are in the habit of wearing, the man’s clearly done his research… But I digress. Should I continue to pontificate on the merits of nuns in matching underwear, just slap me. It’s hardly proper to talk about in this context. My point is that the detail is exquisite, right down to the intimacy of the close-up photography, boxed in like a diorama, with views into all four walls and even through the roof as the revolving set combines with the use of hidden cameras. Only when The Duke finally breaks through and joins the audience in the aisles for his speech at the end of Act I does our complicity in his voyeuristic charade become fully apparent. No longer are we people watching a play – we are participating in his social experiment: to see the world as it truly is, not as it presents itself. Which begs the question: Do we like what we see?

In the Duke’s case, apparently not. He espies hypocrisy, corruption and double-dealings through his disguise. His trusted friends exposed as charlatans; from Lucio’s comic jesting at his master’s expense to Angelo’s by-the-numbers breakdown of the rule of law. Their respective falls from grace are a far cry from the blind justice of the ideal, and certainly of questionable balance with regard to the ferocity of their crimes. But the word is the law, and where Duke turns the spotlight on his peers, he only sees himself – equally lustful for Isabella. And lust he can abide, but Lucio’s pride offends his own even more; and so the clown must go, and the nun married. Such startling insight into the heights of corruption and hypocrisy in government are what makes Measure For Measure pack such a complex punch – belied by the simplicity of the farcical structure – it’s a devilishly subversive slight on the morals of the absolute that translates sublimely into the modern era. Almost frighteningly so.

But back to the sexy nun for a moment. I’m thinking our William Shakespeare had learned a thing or two about lust by the time he wrote this play, his most final of romantic comedies. Perhaps as he grew older, the realisation became clearer that in matters of the heart, lust is somehow the biggest joke of all. There is not one among us who has not wanted what they can’t have; and what better a motif for that emotion but the chaste and pious Isabella. And it’s the politics of denial that are of such travesty here. Who wouldn’t be drawn to such decency (lingerie notwithstanding)? But it’s the idea that we must not feel a certain way that is inherently dangerous, and leads to the kind of deceit and horror of the darkest elements of this play. It’s all very well to condemn something, until it happens to you.

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Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.

“No Law In Deadwood. No Law At All…” AUGUST: SANCHEZ COUNTY

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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