Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Debauchery collides with virtue. Hypocrites roam wild. One man’s word summons another man’s death.
Female reputations hinge on male influence. Characters clash over where to draw the moral line. A devious man of the cloth spies relentlessly, to catch out sins of the flesh.
Who’s getting away with what? Who’s in charge here? Is it “fair”- or is that question ludicrous?
This premise may sound like that of a “Netflix Original”, but in fact, this is Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. And the interpretation by producing company Shakespeare BASH’d — performed as always in a relaxed public-house environment–will make it an atmospheric show to rival the best original streamed programming. For starters, Measure and Measure is full of bawds. Characters running brothels, engaging in its services, joking about diseases. According to Michael Man, who plays Lucio, “to be in a bar, drinking a pint (or two) while seeing this show – it seems like a perfect atmosphere for it.” In addition, the play is directed by Catherine Rainville and interpreted from a female perspective. If the plot’s exploration of power abuse recalls the #MeToo movement, that evocation is deliberate and timely. The urgent relevance of polarizing topics like female consent, virtue as currency, power and privilege, and sexual politics bubbles visibly beneath the surface salaciousness of the comic plot.
At the centre of that plot lies Lucio. “In a Vienna ruled by religion and rampant with vice, Lucio knows all the sides,” explains Mr Man. “He is familiar with those in power as well as those who fuel the seedy underbelly of the city.” At the behest of the imprisoned and soon-to-be executed Claudio, Lucio goes to Isabella, a novice nun and sister of Claudio, and asks her to plead his case with the Duke’s deputy, Lord Angelo, who upholds an absolute authority. Who is Lucio? The character defies an absolute description, and Mr Man acknowledges having “great fun” discovering aspects of the character while scouring the text for inspiration. The continued process of unpacking its layered meanings is his route to discovering this character. So far, his research has shown Lucio described as a “fantastique” in the Folio: someone with a vivid imagination, often described as a “fop” – translations which have often been starting points for characterizing Lucio. The Italian definition of lucio is “light”. “Light in what sense?” muses Mr Man: “Light in his wit and wordplay? Light in his morals?” Analyzing further, he finds a further duality: light can refer to weight . . . or to illumination. He further points out that lucio also means “mirror” or “looking-glass” . . . which leads to him to ponder whether these are “as in a mirror up to nature, because he speaks the observable vulgar truths of the city and its people?” And this yields still more questions: Does Lucio hold up a mirror, as when he intercedes on Claudio’s behalf? Or is he himself a mirror that reflects the base nature of his society?
Though the play is over 400 years old, current headlines suggest that society remains disturbingly unchanged from Lucio’s time to the present. Yes, ours is a time of unprecedented female solidarity and seeming momentum towards an egalitarian future. Yet still the unbalanced gender politics, social hypocrisy and self-serving bureaucracy will strike modern audiences as grimly pertinent. “I find it incredible that though these plays were written so long ago, we at this time are still discussing the same fundamentals,” Mr Man notes. “Measure for Measure is one playwright’s imagination of power dynamics. Set in a city with certain rules of law, we see a wide range of characters navigate their own morals while aiming to thrive, given their positions within these restraints. This meditation remains so ridiculously relevant!” He marvels that Isabella’s question “To whom shall I complain?” is one that continues to be asked, with the demand for an answer getting louder by the day. Her subsequent line, “Did I tell this/Who would believe me?” echoes and anticipates the centuries-old reticence of female victims to name their abusers. As a result, “this production will be an opportunity for Toronto audiences to hear these questions and reflect on its relevance, hopefully in an engaging and entertaining way.”
Mr. Man ought to know. He might be making his Shakespeare BASH’d debut in this production; however, he is no stranger to performing Shakespeare. His credits include Lear and Twelfth Night last summer, and Titus Andronicus and As You Like It in 2014, all at Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park. What most appeals to Mr. Man about performing Shakespeare is simple: he really does “love this language. I find this poetry highly affecting. I love learning the meaning of these words and dissecting the sense of complex sentences.” (As we’ve already seen!) Related to the complex wordplay is gratification rooted in the delight of playing master manipulators of these words who are “so believably hypocritical. Working through the emotional truth of these characters while using this luscious language to express these characters’ desires is a tall order, and I love the challenge.”
His process, he asserts, is born of necessity: he approaches each role with the skills and experience he possesses at a given moment in time. The one bedrock element of that experience is his identity as an immigrant, which is an “undeniably defining experience of my life”. Born and raised in Hong Kong, his first language is Cantonese and his second language is Mandarin. He did not learn much English until he came to Canada in grade school, so his work in Shakespeare has yielded the wondrous discovery that “Shakespeare’s plays transcend language: of course his language is beautiful and his arguments sound, but these words are spoken by flawed and believably complex characters in extraordinary situations. These emotional journeys are captivating, regardless of language. The words to express may be English, but what drives that need to express is universal. That’s what draws me to these plays.”
And these timeless Elizabethan words and contemporary themes gain still greater resonance from the diverse cast in its gender-swapped and cross-cast roles. Representation happens to be “a matter near and dear” to Mr Man’s heart: “I love to see performers of colour on stage and screen. There is an aspect of me driven to prove that performers of colour can not only tackle this material, but we also bring with us our own experiences that can highlight other aspects of these stories.” Since we continue to perform these plays some 400 years on, he is “all for staging them in interesting and engaging ways. I appreciate this [Shakespeare BASH’d] cast offering because hearing these words spoken by, and exploring these relationships between characters played by varying actors will undoubtedly illuminate different meanings in the play. I think this brings forth a myriad of possible interpretations of the words.”
It is important for potential audiences curious about these interpretations not to dawdle. The production has only 7 performances, and some are already sold out. For his part, Mr. Man is eager to start: “I am excited to share all the hard work we have done with Toronto audiences. I am having a great time tackling this beast with my fierce compatriots, supported by the integrity of James and Julia (Co-Artistic Directors), helmed by our fearless leader Catherine, and the double-duty actor and assistant director Drew. Hopefully we can speak these words trippingly, and audiences will be able to hear how relevant these questions are in 2018.”
The richness and texture of those words, plus the contemporaneity of Measure for Measure’s themes — especially when interpreted through current experiences and topics by a diverse cast — just might make this version as compelling and uncomfortable to watch as that Netflix original you would otherwise be streaming in your bedroom. And in 2018, that may be the truest measure of this play and this production.
News You Can Use
What: Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare; Directed by Catherine Rainville, Associate Director: Drew O’Hara; Producers: Julia Nish-Lapidus, James Wallis
Featuring: Geoffrey Armour (Angelo), Olivia Croft (Escalus), Sochi Fried (Isabella), Melanie Leon (Mariana), Tim MacLean (Elbow / Barnardine), Michael Man (Lucio), Megan Miles (Juliet / Friar Francisca), Drew O’Hara (Provost / Associate Director), Cara Pantalone (Mistress Overdone / Froth / Abhorson), Lesley Robertson (Pompey), David Ross (Duke Vincentio), Jeff Yung (Claudio)
When: May 1-6, 2018
Where: Junction City Music Hall, 2907 Dundas Street West, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: www.shakespearebashd.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya