Peter Hall finds turmoil and obsessiveness in a classic comedy. Heather Neill reports
Measure for Measure
The Peter Hall Company, Theatre Royal, Bath from June 21
and next year in Stratford upon Avon as part of the Complete Works Festival www.rsc.org.uk
Sir Peter Hall, directing Measure for Measure for the first time in the UK, says that the character of the Duke is influenced by Shakespeare's knowledge of King James I. James had written a book about good governance and the play is an investigation of what a ruler should be. "The Angelo and Isabella scenes are so extraordinarily well written," says Sir Peter, "and Angelo himself is so economically created, that people tend to forget that the play is primarily about the Duke. He's a very moral man and a very tortured man."
The Duke of Vienna, concerned about the moral laxity of his citizens, puts his supposedly pure deputy, Angelo, in charge while he disguises himself as a friar to observe the consequences. Angelo sentences Claudio to death for getting his betrothed wife Juliet pregnant. Claudio's sister Isabella, a postulant nun, comes to plead for his life, but Angelo is smitten with desire for her and offers Claudio's life in exchange for Isabella sleeping with him. She refuses. The Duke secretly intervenes to save Claudio and expose Angelo.
Meanwhile, among the lower orders of pimps and bawds, Lucio is a know-all who introduces humour into the proceedings. The Duke, says Sir Peter, is central to the story and is suffering with the people: "I think he knows Angelo is a hypocrite before he gives him the job and is taking revenge on him for his treatment of Mariana, whom he jilted."
Angelo is tricked when Mariana, at the Duke's suggestion, takes Isabella's place in his bed. It is ironic that Angelo didn't go through with his marriage because the dowry was insufficient, while Claudio and Juliet have delayed their wedding for similar reasons. Nevertheless, the "handfasting"
they have gone through would have been binding in normal circumstances.
Despite the Duke allowing Isabella to think for some time that her brother is dead, Sir Peter says: "He doesn't want to behave like God. He wants to be a balanced ruler, a rational man. He's worried and responsible. His speeches are a turmoil of emotion and problem and contradiction, and his failures are not perverse but emotional. He understands human frailty.
Shakespeare has the ability to show people warts and all so that we understand them". This is true even of Angelo who is also in turmoil. "He's unbalanced, obsessive, but Isabella is equally obsessive; they are quite a match in that respect."
Lucio, says Sir Peter, is a humorous character and necessary to the plot, but he is also cruel, malicious and a know-all. He gets his come-uppance, but the end is muted. For instance, "The Duke asks Isabella to marry him and she remains silent on the matter."
* Peter Hall's book, Shakespeare's Advice to the Players (Oberon Books), includes an analysis of one of Angelo's soliloquies. The full interview can be heard at www. theatrevoice.com