Be Absolute for Death, our final production of the summer season, centres around the main plot arc of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure – Angelo’s attempt to persuade Isabella to bargain her own virginity for her brother’s life.
Here, director Richard Spaul comments on the why and how of the production.
Richard, why did you choose this play?
Because it seems so relevant to today’s world. Currently we’re facing a pretty terrifying rise in authoritarian government, and Measure for Measure is very much about that. Equally, the sexual behaviour of powerful men – including one who has recently been elected President of the United States – is right at the forefront of things now, as it is in the play.
Who’s the character you personally feel most positive about? Most ambivalent about?
I don’t know if I feel very positive about any of the characters. But Claudio and Isabella are victims of oppressive government, so I would tend to sympathise with them.
Shakespeare himself clearly feels most ambivalent about the Duke (of Vienna) who sets in motion the whole plot by stepping back and leaving his deputy Angelo in charge – Shakespeare desperately tries to portray the Duke as the solution when he is quite clearly the problem.
This is a long-running issue in Shakespeare’s work – the attempt to justify the grotesque authoritarian governments that he and everybody else lived under then. It’s easy to forget when we think of the kings and queens of England, with their jolly pageantry, that all of them without exception – until well after Shakespeare’s time, would now be regarded as hideously oppressive, in the same way as nowadays many people quite rightly regard Saudi Arabia or the Assad regime.
The world we see in the play is that sort of world – there are no good guys.
Why are you concentrating on the main narrative rather than the whole play? And why add additional text and choral work?
Our idea is to explore Measure for Measure and you can’t really explore it just by performing it, just as you couldn’t write an article about the play simply by quoting it.
So by trimming very heavily to the main narrative, then adding in other material, we’re hoping to create an interesting conversation about the play and its significances.
Equally, we’ve added in choral work as we’ve done in so many previous productions. It’s very interesting and exciting to make use of multiple voices – speaking together, overlapping tones, creating a soundscape. Vocal work is also a great way for all the actors to work together at certain key moments.
Why did you choose the Leper Chapel as a setting for the production?
The Leper Chapel is a wonderful environment for this piece. It obviously has powerful religious overtones, and the world of the play is a theocratic world where religious laws have precedence.
Plus, the Leper Chapel is also a place full of reference to marginalised people – lepers in the Middle Ages, in Measure for Measure the sex workers, pimps and prisoners who are an integral part of the narrative.
The setting of Measure for Measure is, of course, the Vienna Red Light District – the demi-monde or half-world – which is reeling at the sudden invoking of harsh, sexually-repressive laws. And that inexorably brings to mind the repression shown in some religious or cultural approaches today which harshly punish any sexuality seen as transgressive.
In Situ has a great track record on Shakespeare – Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, King Lear. What do you feel the company brings to Shakespeare that’s different?
I think our performances are the result of some hard, serious thinking that takes nothing for granted about how Shakespeare’s plays should or shouldn’t be done. Plus, we work very intensively on technique – our productions challenge rather than reinforce standard expectations, and involve a good range of approaches.
As a result, we’re refreshingly free from narrow, stuffy or boring attitudes to the work. But we’re pretty tough on thoughtless fashionable novelty as well.
At least I hope so!
Be Absolute for Death is performed from Thursday 13th to Saturday 15th July 2017 at 20.00 hours at the Leper Chapel, Newmarket Road, Cambridge CB4 1DH. Tickets £10 (£8 concessions) available in advance and from 7.30pm at the venue.
If the weather is cold, you are advised to wrap up warmly as this venue has no heating; toilets are nearby but not on site.