Uneasily suspended between comedy and tragedy, Measure for Measure is usually listed among Shakespeare’s half-dozen “problem plays”.
At its heart lies the demand that a novice nun, Isabella, sacrifices her virginity to save her brother’s life.
How can modern audiences – and women in particular – connect with this?
The most recent production of Measure for Measure seen in Sydney came from Britain’s Cheek By Jowl and Russia’s Pushkin Theatre Company, a highlight of the 2017 Sydney Festival. It was a brutal, stripped-back affair set in a corrupt regime and featured a coercive seduction scene that would be even harder to watch now, in this post-Weinstein world.
Benedict Andrews’ Measure for Measure for Belvoir in 2010, was an intense, claustrophobic production in which the performers’ every move was caught on surveillance cameras. When the disguised Duke Vincentio spoke the lines “millions of false eyes / Are stuck upon thee”, he wasn’t exaggerating.
Now Sport for Jove is tackling the play in its outdoor summer season. Director Lizzie Schebesta is addressing its “problem” status head-on in an unapologetically feminist production she describes as “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Orange is the New Black”.
“When I first looked at the play and its premise about people sentenced to death for sex out of wedlock, it seemed so outdated,” Schebesta says. “Yet so much of the play is very relevant now: the conversation around the dissolution of good leadership; the discrediting victims of sexual assault. Those things are so pertinent.”
Schebesta’s production might upset traditionalists. She has changed the gender of several characters, cut lines and abandoned the engagement scene at the end of Act V.
“A Shakespeare scholar might say I’ve had my way with the play,” Schebesta jokes.
In this production, Claudio – a man on trial to be executed for fornication and impregnating a woman out of wedlock – is a woman, Claudia, played by Janine Watson. Claudia has committed fornication but hasn’t impregnated anyone.
“Changing the gender of Claudio was very exciting because now one of the most famous scenes in the play, between Claudio and Isabella [played by Claudia Ware], is between two sisters,” Schebesta explains.
“They are discussing their sexuality with each other. A sister is asking another sister to sacrifice her virginity to save her life. It seems much more relevant than a man asking for that. And the dynamic between Janine and Claudia is really thrilling. They have great chemistry.”
The decision to turn Claudio into Claudia has a ripple effect on the production. The prison is now a women’s prison with all the inmates played by female actors, including the murderer Barnadine.
“I’m making riskier decisions in order to get women playing more interesting roles in a Shakespeare play,” Schebesta says. “All the female characters in this production are gutsy underdogs and rascals.”
Schebesta is a founding member of Sport for Jove. She has performed with the company for a decade. This is her ninth summer season at Bella Vista, her first as a director of a full-length Shakespeare production.
“As an actor, there are Shakespearean characters I love, but I do feel the frustration that I will always speak fewer lines than the male cast, and I have to make a lot with a little, so I wanted to change that,” she says. “The language is brilliant and Shakespeare is a humanist. I don’t find his writing all that sexist so it’s not difficult to change the gender of his characters, particularly in this day and age where we don’t define ourselves by our womanhood as much as by our humanity.”
Ware says her take on Isabella, the novice nun, is coming from a place of empowerment not obedience. “She is not a moralist, frigid, zealous woman of faith,” says Ware. “When we looked at the history of women entering convents it was a source of great empowerment because it subsumed traditional expectations and archetypes.
“Isabella doesn’t fit the maid, widow, wife, whore archetype so entering into an all female, faith driven environment, was a source of fiery strength for her. But her overall journey includes many shades of grey and Lizzie is encouraging me to embrace the greyness rather than make her a saint. She is a complicated woman.”
Yalin Ozucelik is attempting to give Duke Vincentio a new spin, too.
“He’s a very slippery character,” he says. “He’s written as a god-like figure who puts all the pieces together for a wonderful reveal at the end. I’m trying really hard not to play it like that. I’m making him more like Iago [a role Ozucelik played for Bell Shakespeare in 2016], someone who is thinking on his feet. Also, I’m adding some comedy to him. There is absurdity in Vincentio.”
Ozucelik hopes the audience experience will be a provoking and pleasurable one. “This is my fourth season playing outdoors and it’s always such a joy to work here as an actor. But I’ve also been an audience member and brought along a nice little picnic and a rug and enjoyed the night. There is so much to love about seeing a play outdoors.”
Schebesta says she’s very aware of the outdoor audience and their desire for an involving experience. “We are performing to people with picnics, who are here around Christmas, and they want to crack open some sparkling wine and see something entertaining. We’re going to deliver that. It’s a powerful play because it punches you in the guts and then hits you with something hilarious. It keeps you exhilarated.”