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Shakespeare measures up to expectations

Jonathan Retartha | Friday, September 19, 2003

Wednesday and Thursday nights featured pimps, nuns and everything in between as The Actors From The London Stage opened William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” at Washington Hall. The company is a residency program at Notre Dame featuring actors from all over Great Britain. Supported by the Department of Film, Television and Theater, “Measure for Measure” is the first of two Shakespeare plays performed by the company this year.

The company consists of five actors playing several roles each in the play. Very few props are used, and there are no sets, except for a few tables and chairs. The goal of the company in their productions is to focus on the words and to use their understanding of Shakespearean text in order to portray the scenes in a way that illuminates what is on the page, rather than having elaborate sets overshadow the performances. There are no directors involved. The five actors collaborate as a group on the texts and their presentation. The Company also provides an excellent means by which to introduce possible Theater majors to the world of stage, offering crew and marketing opportunities to the students.

Stuart Fox plays (among other roles) Duke Vincentio, the ruler of Vienna who has finally woken up to the realization that his dominion has become a corrupt society filled with brothels, drug trafficking and excessive drinking. He takes responsibility for the fact that he let his city go to ruin and chooses to leave his seat of power and his top aide, Escalus (John Nettleton), relinquishing control to Angelo (Matthew Radford). A strict, law-abiding disciplinarian, Angelo wants to overhaul the entire government system to allow no room for mercy or recompense under the law. To prove his point and set an example, he sentences a young man named Claudio (again, Matthew Radford) to death for impregnating a young maiden, Juliet (Elizabeth Hurran). Claudio’s friend Lucio (Anna Northam) rushes to Claudio’s sister, Isabella (again, Elizabeth Hurran), who is about to enter a nunnery, to seek her aid in freeing her brother. Isabella goes to Angelo and begs for her brother’s life. To the people of Vienna, Angelo is the most upright of men in the city, but he finally succumbs to temptation when he meets Isabella. He agrees to free Claudio, but only if Isabella will sleep with him. All the while, the Duke monitors all that is happening while in disguise and hatches a plan to free Claudio and keep Isabella from harm. Full of comedy as well as drama, “Measure for Measure” is a Shakespearean play suitable for all tastes.

In order to clarify distinctions between the numerous characters played by one of the actors, subtle changes to the costumes occur constantly on stage. For instance, Matthew Radford, who plays Claudio, Claudio’s condemner Angelo and a pimp named Pompey, wears mostly black at all times on stage. When under the guise of Angelo, he is dressed in a grey robe. When switching to Claudio, he dons a white scarf. Finally, when playing Pompey, he wears a gold chain. The differences are not purely superficial, however. The actors need to go to great lengths to create definitively unique characters for each role to avoid confusing the audience. Again, using Matthew Radford as an example, he is strict and upright as Angelo, boyish and innocent as Claudio and loose and arrogant with a cockney accent as Pompey.

The Actors From The London Stage are by no means amateurs when it comes to plays, especially Shakespeare. They have studied at Cambridge, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and Exeter University. They have starred in such well known classics as “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “King Lear,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “A Doll’s House,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Three Musketeers,” “Hamlet,” “The Tempest,” “A Man For All Seasons,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Macbeth.”

As for the production itself, the acting truly shines. “Measure for Measure” is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, and many consider it one of his weakest due to its weak characters and somewhat clichéd storyline. The acting reveals the true themes of the play – justice and mercy. Therefore, it is up the actors to bring out the best in the characters, and The Actors From The London Stage do not disappoint.

Elizabeth Hurran truly offers a truly remarkable performance as Isabella. This being her first tour with the Company, she displays a poise and control over her character that reflects the skill of Shakespearean veterans. The character of Isabella is perhaps the most complex, needing to run the full gamut of emotions. Elizabeth provides a stunning contrast between the innocent, chaste religious woman at the onset of the play, and the fiery, commanding accuser of Angelo during the climax. When her character is forced to be the one voice crying fowl in a city full of people who swear by the honesty of Angelo, she commands the stage and not only draws the attention of the characters involved, but also captivates the audience during her monologues.

Matthew Radford proves to be the most dynamic actor in the Company, playing Angelo with the sternness and power of Lord Capulet and the introspection of Hamlet or Macbeth. His is a character torn apart by lust and desire. He knows of his hypocrisy and battles with his emotions in a way that speaks volumes even in his silence.

Radford’s other noteworthy role is that of Pompey, where he provides brashness and comic ego that you would find in any stand-up comedy club. His role as Pompey is truly one of comic relief, and he relishes in his control of the audience and their laughter.

What makes the actors so good at what they do is knowing exactly what lines will elicit what response from the audience, and their skill is never more obvious than in the comedic scenes. Many accuse Shakespeare’s comedy as being too dated and hard to appreciate. In truth, however, he was as raunchy and bawdy as any writer on SNL or MADTV would be today. He had to be because that was the audience he wrote for in his time. He wrote for the masses, who, like contemporary audiences, take much enjoyment from bathroom humor and sex comedy.

Stuart Fox provides the perfect blend of kindness and firmness in the character of the Duke. It is ironic that after all his transgressions as ruler he chooses to go under disguise as a Friar, and his heartfelt interactions with Isabella show a paternal-like relationship that contrasts well with Angelo’s strict dictatorship. Fox also provides dynamic comic relief in minor roles as a foolish prostitute-solicitor and a drunken Bohemian on death row.

Anna Northam is brilliant in the role of Lucio, a role originally written for a man. She has an attitude that just begs to get her in hot water (which it does). Many of her scenes involve switching characters in-scene. This is a tall order, and if done incorrectly could result in downright silliness and ridicule. Her skill aids her in this task, and she draws the attention of the crowds as she jumps in and out of characters.

John Nettleton adds a learned grace to his primary role as the Duke’s advisor, and he offers a grandfather-like motivation that represents a level-headedness missing in Angelo. He enjoys his roles and pulls no punches in his deliveries, even in a small cameo as an old nun.

The crowd on opening night seemed very engrossed by the performance from beginning to end. In what was an estimated 85 percent-full Washington Hall, laughter abounded and the power of the dramatic monologues resonated in the attendees. Because the actors know exactly what jokes people will understand, they milk them for everything they’re worth, so even a novice can expect to be laughing throughout the play. “Measure for Measure” is a play that everyone will enjoy. It speaks to themes involving corrupt government, harsh dictators and just punishment that contemporary audiences will have no problem appreciating, especially based off the society we live in today. While there are several sexual jokes mixed in, nothing is overtly rude or offensive, nor are there any obscene actions that would deter families from bringing children. While young children may find it a tad boring, especially without the colorful sets and costumes, preteens and teenagers should have no problem at all understanding the plot and the text.

The actors also incorporate themselves into the academic life at Notre Dame during their stay, visiting English and Theater classrooms providing workshop opportunities for the students. For instance, Elizabeth Hurran visited a First Year Composition class today – a 9:30 class that is a very early appointment after an opening night performance. She went over some basics about reading and understanding Shakespeare, gave some background in the plot of “Measure for Measure,” and went over some excerpts from the play. Since the First Year Composition course focuses primarily on forming an argument and proving it, Hurran’s character of Isabella was a perfect match to bring together the arguments of the students and Isabella’s argument to free her brother. Hurran also took the students outside and split them into groups, giving each the assignment to put on a scene from the play and perform it in front of their peers. This kind of active participation in Notre Dame life is a trademark of the Company program and opens the students up to broad ranges of discussions and forums concerning Shakespearean texts.

Overall, The Actors From The London Stage succeed in making “Measure for Measure” an enjoyable experience where the audience laughs and cries, but mostly is forced to ask questions. Is saving a criminal brother worth your own virginity? Is mercy due to one who has broken the law? Can hypocrisy be accepted in government? These and many other topics provide for a thought-provoking experience that is worth checking out.

The final performance of “Measure for Measure” is tonight in Washington Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the LaFortune Student Center Box Office. Adults are $16, Senior Citizens are $14 and Students are $12. The theater season at Notre Dame continues with Moliere’s “Tartuffe” October 8-12 and Tennessee William’s “The Glass Menagerie” November 19-23. The Actors From The London Stage return with “Romeo and Juliet” February 11-14 and Shaw’s “The Arms and the Man” plays April 21-25.

Contact Jonathan Retartha at jretarth@nd.edu