There’s a fine line between voyeurism and surveillance

Measure for Measure is the second play I’ve seen in a week in which a character spontaneously springs into a headstand. The headstand is one of the key inversions in yoga. In Cageling, the headstand occurs when Mother Alba is struggling to contain her own desire and, incidentally, this yields the upside down penis I alluded to in my last post. In Benedict Andrews’ production of Measure for Measure, Barnadine the drunken prisoner, played by a very brutish looking Colin Moody, stands on his head at the end of an excellently staged drunken rampage. In both instances, the headstand is symbolic of the world being in chaos, but it is not true chaos. The posture represents inversion, but in yoga this is the inversion of an intensely disciplined body. Thus the chaos in both instances, I think, seems to remain within the strict disciplined worlds in which these characters exist.

This paradox of disciplined chaos makes sense in a play like Measure for Measure. Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”; meaning, in part, that although it is funny, it’s not really a comedy. The tension between the humour that is in the script, and the fact that all is not necessarily well, even if it ends well, is sustained throughout this production. This is most evident in the character of Lucio, played by Toby Schmitz, whose wry and sleazy asides, rouge-like metatheatrical commentary, and accidental heresy are a constant source of humour in the play. Schmitz is perfectly cast as Lucio, in a role that arguably functions like the Fool in Lear or Feste in Twelfth Night, and his grasp of the comedic nuances in the dialogue is remarkably clever. However, the achievement of Schmitz’s performance, which is perfectly restrained by Andrews’ direction, is that our laughter never actually disarms of the dramatic action.  We laugh at a situation, but remain conscious of its more serious implications, the sinister and hypocritical underbelly of the State. The way Andrews’ harnesses the “problem” of the play, is one of the highlights of this production.

Here’s the central premise. Duke Vincentio takes leave of the his post, only to return disguised as a Friar where he can observe the workings of the stage from another perspective. In his absence, Angelo is given power and almost immediately he orders the execution of a young man, Claudio, for having sex out of wedlock. Claudio’s sister Isabella then spends the rest of the play trying to save her brother’s life. Angelo gives Isabella an intensely hypocritical ultimatum, give me your virginity and I’ll give you your brother.

The play is about power and desire. It was first performed at the start of the seventeenth century, and grimly foreshadows the imminent Puritan rule, where the repression of desire was the major political platform and all the theatres were closed. But, this production is set in the present, in a snazzy hotel room. Ralph Myers’ set is perfectly generic; the bed is made with shiny beige quilted coverlet, light pink carpet, blonde wood furniture, 12volt dichroic down lights, bar fridge complete with mini-canned coke and a vase of oriental lillies (that Lucio will eventually “deflower”) sits nicely on the TV Table. Each scene is always plausibly in a different room, because all hotel rooms are the same (what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls the “non-place”). The could-be-anywhere hotel room seems to function especially well during prison scenes and sex scenes. It is especially sinister during scenes in the prison, where, like scenes out of some dodgy Hollywood hostage drama, the hotel room seems to function plausibly make-shift hold for hostages, and suitably seedy in sex scenes where it may be a room rented for only an hour. The nicest touch in the set is the medium-sized plasma TV, playing the weather channel for the most part, with the occasional flick through to a wildlife documentary, porn or Court TV. The play is about power and desire today, Porn TV and Court TV.

Screens are the key feature of this production, which is filmed by cameramen onstage, and a on a series of well-placed security cameras in the roof and behind the bathroom mirror. What is remarkable is how quickly this style presentation of Shakespeare in the theatre naturalises. You adapt to watching really quickly. The content is broadcast on two large screens which are mounted on the back walls of the stage. Just as audiences these days like to choose, the audience at this production can choose to watch the action live or watch it on screen. And in this a very very blurry line is created between the voyeuristic pleasure in watching sex on screen, and the regulative force of surveillance. This mirrors the porn/court TV on the plasma, doubles again in relation the play’s broad thematic concerns of power and desire.

At the centre of all this, as always, are the poor virgins and whores, the only two career choices for women in the play. Isabella, played by Robin McLeavy, is beautifully tragic as the model of virtue, whose virtue is at the heart of the drama and used as the measure of the value of her brother’s life. In fact, the whole cast is excellent in supporting this complex and contradictory tragi-comedy.

Andrews’ production is deeply intellectual, evidenced by the Zizek and Agamben quoted in the program, but also in the complex layering of design components to support his interpretation of the play. But, even with this intensely considered theoretical underbelly, the production is remarkably accessible and represents the theory in ways that are legible to a large audience. Shakespeare was a popular writer, we always have to remind ourselves of that because he occupies such a revered position in the western canon. Andrews’ production blends the popular roots of Shakespeare with deep academic complexity, the “low” works with the “high” (as if the two are ever really distinct anyway), resulting in an entertainingly sinister, and near-perfect production of this under-performed problem play.

This is an unofficial review of the performance on Saturday 26th June, 2pm

Measure for Measure plays at Upstairs Belvoir until July 25

TRANSPORT:

I rode to Belvoir on the lovely winter afternoon. From Newtown, along Wilson St and along the path on Cleveland. So quick. 15 mins or something. I went the wrong way up Belvoir St to save time, which is illegal but satisfyingly steep. Belvoir does not have enough bicycle parking out the front. I don’t know if there is hidden parking elsewhere, but there are just a couple of signposts to tie your bike up to. Come the revolution, this will not be able to accommodate all the City’s cyclists, so hopefully City of Sydney will remedy this dearth of bike racks sometime in the near future.

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