Director Michael Attenborough on Measure for Measure
in Directors, Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, Transcripts
1st March 2010
SHAKESPEARE: MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Director Michael Attenborough talks to Heather Neill about his modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s problem play, currently on at the Almeida, and starring Rory Kinnear and Anna Maxwell Martin. Recorded at the Almeida.
There surely must be part of Isabella that is thinking: surely I could commit a small sin and thus save a human life.
SHAKESPEARE: MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Director Michael Attenborough talks to Heather Neill about his modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s problem play, currently on at the Almeida, and starring Rory Kinnear and Anna Maxwell Martin. Recorded at the Almeida Theatre, London.
Recorded: 1 March 2010
Transcribed by the V&A. This transcript is copyright of the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this production, its reference is SHAKESPEARE: MEASURE FOR MEASURE and you must quote the url in your address bar.
Heather Neill: Michael Attenborough, artistic director of the Almeida Theatre is the latest director to tackle the notorious so-called problem play Measure for Measure. This is Heather Neill for TheatreVOICE and I’m at the Almeida’s offices in Islington to talk to Michael Attenborough about his approach to the text and the production which runs at the Almeida until 10 April.
Well, this play — first performed in 1604, soon after James I came to power and Shakespeare’s company became the King’s Players — is obviously about styles and means of government. It’s also about the commodification of sex, about hypocrisy and the interconnection between private and public morality, and so could scarcely be more apt for this moment. But then perhaps it always has been relevant.
Quick reminder of the plot: Vincentio, Duke of Vienna is perplexed at the moral degradation of the state over which he rules, he places his deputy Angelo in charge and appears to leave Vienna. In fact, he remains in the city disguised as friar, spies on events and becomes implicated in them, and apparently cold Angelo behaves without mercy. Crucially he condemns Claudio to death for making his fiancée pregnant, and when Claudio’s sister Isabella, a postulant nun comes to beg for his life, he offers to pardon her brother in exchange for sleeping with him. Rory Kinnear plays Angelo, Anna Maxwell Martin, Isabella, and Ben Miles the Duke in this production, and also there’s a kind of resolution when the Duke engineers the bed trick near the end, but we’ll talk about how much of a resolution there is, I’m sure. The main story is played out against the low-life of the city, amongst whom the most notable example is Lucio, a fantastic, played by Lloyd Hutchinson.
Well, first of all, you’ve chosen to do this more or less in modern dress. Is it because it seemed to you to be talking to us now, or…?
Michael Attenborough: Yes, almost entirely. I mean, actually, I’m not usually a terribly close fan of the modern dress Shakespeare, often because I think, not so much actually in the dress but in the props, I always think Shakespearean characters coming on speaking in the iambic pentameter and holding mobile phones is just a trifle ridiculous, and in a curious way can lead to its sort of proclaiming its non-modern element and I think it’s an unhelpful comparison.
MA: However, your point about our relationship to scandal, to hypocrisy, to government, to private and public morality and so on, it couldn’t be more apt. So I have set it in modern dress. I haven’t actually been terribly slavish towards a particular period so the most old-fashioned character actually wears something that’s almost like a frock coat, and the most modern characters…
HN: That’s Escalus.
MA: That’s Escalus, yes. And the two lap-dancers are in thongs, so it’s stretching across the twentieth century fairly liberally.
HN: Yes and you give the Duke a quite glamorous sort of gown to wear in his last scene, when he comes in not being the friar anymore.
MA: Yes, and a gown that again could almost be from many periods. So I wanted the echoes of contemporary life, but not actually saying, “This is a play about contemporary life.”
HN: Yes, because people always say that “More than our brother is our chastity” is a hard line for a modern young woman to say.
MA: It is indeed. I’m pretty sure it was difficult in its day. I think we have a slightly inaccurate view, I suspect, of how tricky that particular invocation was in its own day. In fact we play it in the show pretty much as a prayer, so that she’s actually looking to heaven and praying to God to in a sense endorse that particular view. But it’s obviously a very, very complicated issue, which is actually Isabella’s own relationship with her own sexuality, and that’s very much part of it.
HN: And her belief though, because she does believe that she’ll be damned forever.
MA: Oh good Lord yes, because she’s about to become a bride of Christ, and she says, “Better that my brother die once, than I be damned forever”, and it’s… She believes that. It’s absolutely a belief. But there must be part of her that’s thinking, you know, “Maybe I could actually do a small sin to save a human life”, and “Maybe God would forgive me for that”. And that’s actually the argument that Claudio puts to her. Surely a sin that saves somebody’s life becomes a virtue, and she refuses to accept that.
HN: Yes, well, we see her at the very beginning when she’s speaking to Francesca the nun, isn’t it? She seems to want even more extreme…
MA: She does. I think, as I said earlier, her relationship with her own sexuality is fascinating. I mean, it must be relevant to the portrait of Isabella when Shakespeare gives her her very first line, saying, “Couldn’t you find a tougher order?” She’s already in the toughest order in existence. So this is somebody that isn’t voluntarily at least going to be restraining herself. She needs if you like, the external command of an order, of a structure to hold her down. I think that that seems to me to be what she’s saying: “I hope you’re jolly disciplinarian in here, because my self-discipline may not be quite as hot.” I suspect. But, we found, Anna and I, as we worked on the play, the play made more and more sense to us and was more interesting if the journey that she goes on with Angelo is one that is not merely about chastity, but actually about, I won’t say a fear of sex, but actually, well maybe fear isn’t too harsh a word, a fear of opening a particular door, that once she walks through it, there are a whole load of things she doesn’t want to see in there.
HN: Well given the society that she has to find a place in, if she’s not going to be manipulated by other people, there don’t seem to be any role models for women where they can make choices.
MA: That’s absolutely right. That was one of the reasons why I chose the modern period, because I kept, we actually kept talking in rehearsals about the vice trade, and I can remember a time in New York, pre-Giuliani, where you know, you could walk down 42nd Street and I remember Peter Hall once referring to it as pure Hieronymus Bosch, and it was, and then Giuliani, like Angelo, cleaned the whole place up. But of course dirt, for the want of a better word, goes somewhere. It doesn’t just evaporate, and if you just look hard enough in New York, you find that the vice trade, the people with the money, the people who are earning a living out of it, have simply just moved elsewhere. It’s just that basically, that’s not what they wanted to show the tourists anymore. So it’s very much a play about two social groupings, the rulers and the ruled, and the ruled are by and large everybody who’s involved in the sex trade, and broadly speaking, people don’t, other than Isabella, don’t actually engage in moral debate. They take certain moral lines. But broadly speaking, those in the vice trade aren’t doing it out of a moral conviction, they’re doing it because that’s how they live, that’s how they survive. So if you close my brothel, I don’t know how I’m going to feed my children; I don’t know how I’m going to, you know, pay the rent.
HN: And after all, the people who use the brothels are those in government…
MA: …are those in government, and so the reality is that you’re right, going back to Isabella, her relationship to her own sexuality has to have a social context. It can’t just be about do I or don’t I enjoy sex, do I feel guilty about it? It’s actually much broader than that, and actually how do I feel about it in a particular social context?
HN: Well, Angelo also appears to go to extremes. In your production Rory Kinnear appears to be rather horrified at the idea of having to take this responsibility. He’s not sure he’s up to it, is he? Or is he afraid of what he’s going to reveal about himself?
MA: I think that, I don’t know that he’d be that self-aware, but I think…
HN: He looks very geeky, very much part of…
MA: Yes, what we wanted to do was to tell the story about somebody who was surprised by the appointment, and somebody who was not necessarily ambitious. The notion has been there, or one assumption has always been there, that Angelo was a social-climber and that he couldn’t wait to have that seat of government. But, in fact, you’re right, he does actually have lines about surely there’s a stronger test you can put me to, before you give me this honour. Now, whether that’s a fear of what’s inside him, or whether it’s false modesty, or is it surprise, or whatever. But we certainly have not played him as an ambitious man. But once he gets into the seat of government, once he has that opportunity, he does indeed take things to extremes because that’s his own personal conviction, that’s how he lives his life, and if, you know, God forbid, had Mary Whitehouse ever been voted into Number 10, she would have probably been pretty damn swingeing herself. I’m not quite sure as extreme as this play, but nevertheless, some pretty extreme proposals have popped up in the past, even today in our more pensive times. So, yes, the fascinating in a way conundrum, contradiction, paradox at the centre of the play, is as Toby Belch says in Twelfth Night, you know, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there’ll be no more kegs of ale?”, and as Pompey says in this play, “Are you thinking of castrating everybody?” and Escalus says, “No”, then frankly, I think they’ll still be going at it. You know, it’s human nature, and of course that’s what Angelo discovers about himself.
HN: Yes, perhaps we ought to mention the set, because the way that the rooms change and revolve, we get the sense that all human nature is here, but it’s all very linked, and one role can turn into another quite quickly.
MA: Well yes… I…
HN: It’s a beautiful set by the way.
MA: Thank you, that was indeed the image I wanted. In fact, at one stage, I was thinking of using a wall of mirrors which would, you know, at one point be one-way and at one point be two-way, but it became much more problematic and I needed moreVariety than that. But certainly the point is that their flipsides to the same coin and that the slippage between one class and another or one human being and another is very, very small. There’s a… I’m not a great devourer of critical studies of plays, but the academic that I admire more than anybody alive today is a guy called Jonathan Bate, and in his second book, Soul of the Age, there’s a very interesting four or five pages about Measure, and he says something really, really simple: you have to throw the words “either/or” away and put the word “and” in. It’s not that Angelo is either that or that; Isabella is either that or that. The moment you throw that away and say actually they could be both, you discover the complexity and richness that’s inside the play. I would argue as it happens, being a complete Shakespearean fanatic, that that’s actually at the centre of all Shakespeare. That because we know so little about the man, and we know so little about the man’s opinions, in fact what he does say is, “There’s humanity.” Falstaff is jolly, attractive, the life and soul of the party, generous, democratic, he’s also murderous, mendacious, ambitious, ruthless, and that’s humanity, you know that’s… Hamlet’s highly intelligent and a coward, and you know, that’s the richness. I think Jonathan actually, what Jonathan said, is applicable to all of Shakespeare, throw “either/or” away and put the word “and” in, and you actually begin to discover the complexity of these characters.
HN: Well that’s very neat, and very useful. Let’s go back for a minute to Angelo and Isabella before we go on to the Duke. It seemed to me that Angelo fell in love with her, with not anything to do with her physically, but with the fact that he recognised someone like himself. Is that…
MA: I don’t know if he recognises somebody like himself, but he does fall in love with her virtue.
HN: Yes, with her absoluteness.
MA: With her absoluteness. I mean, you know, her costume, her hairstyle, none of it is there to hook him in.
HN: No, you’ve made her unglamorous as possible.
MA: Absolutely, and the interesting thing is that at one point he says, “If you’re going to catch a saint, you have to, the bait you put on your hook is a saint… that you catch a saint with a saint.”
HN: Yes. It’s interesting though that he bothers about his appearance.
MA: Indeed, indeed.
HN: As far as his contact lenses are considered.
MA: I think that’s very human. He suddenly wants to throw away his geeky, you know, glasses and leather-patched Geography-teacher jacket, and acquires a kind of vanity. I think the extreme of human behaviour in all areas is often funny. There’s a kind of absurd side to it, and the hoops that we jump through in order to get what we want, particularly in the sexual arena, are frequently comic, it seems to me. But no, I mean, he’s absolutely fascinated by her goodness, and you’re right to say at one level or other he’s looking in the mirror when he’s doing that, and I daresay this was clear to you, but the very final image of the production actually finds Isabella and Angelo staring at each other as if to say, “I wonder whether we’re closer twins than we ever, ever realised, and what on earth have we just been through, and where are we now?” I mean, there’s a moment in the production when he becomes more and more obvious about the deal that he’s offering her and actually sits next to her very, very closely and starts running his hand up her thigh, and we took a decision, actually quite early that Isabella would not move immediately, a) hoping that I’m going to pretend that hand is not running up my thigh, and b) that it’s just left there till the last possible moment, and then she breaks free. But there’s part of her, that’s saying, you know…
HN: This would be a new experience after all.
MA: I find this a new experience. Exactly, and it’s like, I don’t want to get too graphic… Women, rape victims, often say that the extraordinary thing is because, usually barristers are male in courts of law, that the attempt to prove that actually finally they wanted it, that, and that they were enjoying it sometimes actually hard to deny a hundred percent, because there’s sometimes physical evidence that the body takes over from the mind and even though you’re scared, and even though it’s horrifying, and even though No means No, sometimes, something else takes over that… I think it’s a very, very hard one for… I think the same is true of men. People say it’s impossible to rape a man, and actually I don’t believe that. I think that it is possible and that the gap between denial and acceptance…
HN: You mean, a woman raping a man…
MA: Well both, well people so often said that it’s impossible to rape a man because surely, basically, he can only ever get an erection if he’s excited. But the fact is the body does take over in circumstances in which the mind is screaming “I don’t want this!”, and that is what we are looking at with Angelo and Isabella.
HN: Yes, well it’s crucial to the whole play, isn’t it? Angelo is sort of trying to control nature, and so is the Duke by the end, but Lucio says, as you’ve already quoted, you’re not going to manage to do this anyway.
MA: I think if anything, and I’m putting words in Shakespeare’s mouth, but I think if anything it’s a play that issues a warning about absolutes, or a word that we know, that we have coined in the twentieth century, extremism, that if you take something to its extreme, it finally becomes ludicrous and arguably absolutely impracticable and impossible to follow through.
HN: Although Vienna’s has got into this situation because the Duke has been too lax and he feels there should be someone more extreme than he is.
MA: That’s absolutely true, but you could argue that in a way he’s taken permissiveness to an extreme, that actually the central image of our show, which is right at the front of the production, are scales, and scales of justice. But in a way, I come back to my point of dispensing with “either/or” and replacing it with “and”, that what you’re looking at is a situation where you find out possibly how we govern ourselves in terms of balance: the balance between justice and mercy, the balance between permissiveness and strictness. That there isn’t an absolute: actually, we’re constantly looking at shades of grey. The fourth word of the play is the word government, and I think in lots of ways that’s the subject of the play.
HN: Yes, and it’s a fascinating subject, and Ben Miles we see as the Duke in the first scene obviously before even the audience has settled down, pacing anxiously and wondering how to solve this problem. But his choice of Angelo, this in itself is problematic because he does know something about him, he knows all about the Mariana…
MA: Oh yes absolutely.
HN: Is this just an experiment? Also he obviously enjoys the disguise so, you know, he’s…
MA: I think there is an element, we wanted to portray an element of panic, an element of “I just can’t face being a ruler, I’m not good enough.”
HN: Things are really out of control.
MA: Things are out of control, they’ve been like this for fourteen years, and it can’t go on. Now, it seems to me that the choice of Angelo is very clever because he’s in a win-win situation. If Angelo screws up and does, in fact does what happens, which is if he oversteps the mark, when the Duke returns they’ll all greet him with open arms and say, “Oh my God, thank God you’re back, this has been a nightmare”, and if he succeeds he does the Duke’s job for him. So in a way he can’t lose. I think what we were concerned, in the Duke, was to discover the man on a journey. The only remark in all the reviews of this production that has gone out of my skin, was Michael Billington inThe Guardian saying that Ben failed because he was neither a scheming Machiavellian shyster, nor a distributor of divine justice, which clearly are extremes of each other anyway. To which I want to reply, what about him being a human being? What about him being someone who’s flawed, who maybe has good intentions but actually goes about it the wrong way. Maybe he changes as he goes through. Maybe he starts as one thing and becomes another, and I think the moment you try to hang intellectual labels around the necks of Shakespeare’s leading characters, you’re in big trouble. Now, there’s a huge question mark hovering over any actor that approaches the Duke. It’s famously a part that most actors turn down because they don’t know who he is. But Ben and I took the view very, very early on, that we wanted to explore a human being and that we looked at the language, we looked at the journey he went on, and we tried to put together a character, a fully realised, detailed character.
HN: Yes, quite often he does seem sidelined, you sort of forget about him in the fireworks between Angelo and Isabella…
MA: That’s right…
HN: But in fact, in this production, and I think quite rightly, he’s very, very central.
MA: It’s interesting that one of the challenges of the play, one of the reasons why people talk about a problem play, I think, is that it appears to have a kind of split spine, that for the first half it’s very much about Isabella and Angelo, and then at the beginning of Act 3, Scene 2, which is roughly where we take our interval, you never see Angelo for two acts, and the Duke takes over. So Angelo moves aside and the Duke takes centre stage. Now if, at that moment, the Duke is merely an agency of the plot, either because he’s a scheming shyster, or because he’s a distributor of divine retribution, it seems to me you’ve got nowhere to go. You’re making a very singular, bland, uncomplicated statement, and what we wanted to look at was a man suddenly finding, because he’s in disguise, that you could argue he’s got power without responsibility. Nobody’s going to come back to him and say, “Why did you do that?”, or “Why didn’t you do it like that?”, because they don’t even know he’s the ruler anyway. He begins, I think to enjoy the part, and begins of course in those circumstances to make terrible mistakes, and it’s quite clear that through the withholding of the information from Isabella, that he’s managed to save Claudio’s life, is an act of quite ridiculous cruelty.
HN: Yes, how on earth does the actor explain that to himself?
MA: Well, we explained it very cleanly, which is simply because he thinks that when he finally produces the rabbit out of the hat, she’ll be so awestruck and so relieved, that she’ll think he’s utterly brilliant. It’s a miscalculation, but he’s like… Because he actually does say to us, “I’m not going to tell her now, and I’ll tell her when she least expects it.” And that somehow she’ll love him all the more for the fact that she visited the depths of tragedy and all is well. And in fact, of course, what happens at the end of the play? She looks at him in utter resentment.
HN: Yes, let’s look at the end of the play because Isabella has no words…
HN: When she’s told she’s won the Duke, oh lucky thing, and usually that’s played as a sort of ambivalent moment, whereas here, it’s quite clear that she’s not going to have anything to do with him.
HN: You’ve made that very clear and she’s actually still transfixed by Angelo and what has happened.
MA: Yes, yes.
HN: And perhaps can see that they might have been a better couple in some other world, that they might’ve even have had more in common perhaps.
MA: Yes, again I come back to the word “journey”. I think that like, rather like Angelo, Isabella was looking to life becoming simplified at the beginning of the play: “I’ll devote my life to Christ, I will live in a convent, that will be that.”
HN: No more decisions.
MA: No more decisions: “God will guide me”, and she goes on this extraordinary journey in the space of four days, which really changes almost everything about the way she looks upon life, and I don’t think it’s over-elaborate to say that effectively Angelo attempts rape, and at the end of the play, the man she’s put total faith in, a) produces much to her utter astonishment, her brother, who she has presumed dead, way beyond the point where it would have been humane to tell her, b) he also assumes that she’s going to throw away all her nun, her Catholic promises, you know, and marry him. And I think that she is absolutely shell-shocked at the end, but she’s certainly a completely different human being now from the beginning. Now, whether in another life she and Angelo might have something in common, who knows?
MA: But I think it’s not an accident, I don’t think Shakespeare did anything by accident. I think it’s no accident that he gives her no lines, and I think what he’s saying is, “Over to you — you decide”, and it’s interesting, some people have concluded from our ending that she may still marry him, curiously. I agree with you, I have no belief. I can find no credibility in that notion at all. But we have remained true to the text in the sense that she didn’t say anything, she is dumbstruck. But effectively, he gets down on his knees and proposes to her, and she looks at him in absolute dumb astonishment, and he leaves the stage.
HN: But almost disgust… it’s beyond surprise, but however, you give her, or Anna Maxwell Martin has chosen, to have a moment, where, which I’ve never seen before, where she would have kissed him when it looks as if he’s going to solve all the problems. Not in a sexual way, but out of gratitude.
HN: She runs towards him, and he doesn’t respond, and then she stands back as well and thinks, “Oh that’s not me”, but…
MA: Yes, it’s a moment really when we, actually we found it in rehearsals. But it was a moment when it was like you’ve got a nun standing opposite a friar, and they’re going through this incredibly painful and difficult process, and he appears to be offering a way out, and there’s part of her that does want to fling her arms around him and thank him, and there’s suddenly… Their instincts appear to be taking them into an area where their, if you like their vows, wouldn’t take them to. We also tried to plot in a moment earlier than that, when I think it’s pretty clear, he’s fallen for her hook, line and sinker and… It’s when he asks her back to the cell and describes her as good and beautiful and gracious, and I think he is absolutely awe-struck by her. She doesn’t know that, she can’t hear that for all the hellish problems that she’s got. But I think that unless you give the Duke that kind of moment at the end, the play really doesn’t make any sense. But you’re right, it’s not just bewilderment. I think she’s absolutely shocked, and neither Anna nor I could find any logical argument that would suggest that she would do everything she could to fight off Angelo, and then happily give up all her religious vows and walk off and marry the Duke. It simply didn’t make sense to us.
HN: But presumably… one doesn’t know of course what an Elizabethan audience would have made of this, but they would have been expecting a sort of coupling at the end, wouldn’t they?
MA: They would indeed, and that’s why a problem play is clearly not Shakespeare’s classification. But it’s a problem play because… not because of what it is, but because of what it’s not. It’s clearly not a comedy like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, where everybody goes off in couples to get married. And you’ve got a pregnant girl, whom Claudio, who knows whether Claudio’s going to look after her or not? There’s no evidence in the text that he will. Neither of them express anything about seeing each other.
HN: He does say they were almost married and the…
MA: He does… is that strictly true? If you’d got a girl pregnant, do you know what I mean? I don’t know, I don’t know. We certainly play Claudio as one of the lads. He’s not, he’s not a sort of Romeo, he’s much more Mercutio. You’ve got Mariana and Angelo, which seems like a matchmaking in Hell, and…
HN: Yes, it does and it does call into question the Duke’s ability to make decisions and his enjoyment of manipulating other people.
HN: Just saying, “Go off and get married”. But Mariana does say she wants no other husband. It’s very hard to understand her, where she ’s coming from as well.
MA: Well, I know.
HN: She’s been let down by him.
MA: Terribly, it is a hard stretch. But you know what? I think, I could cite various friends, none of whom I’m prepared to name, who I can see in relationships, and I think, “What on earth is holding those two people together? What does she see in him?” Or you look even on the box at a documentary about battered wives, and you think, “Why are these women coming back for more, why do they endlessly believe that man is reformable?”, and one of the lines that Mariana has to Isabella, is that sometimes men are actually more attractive for their faults, and she actually has a line that says that, put rather more elegantly than that, and it is a belief, I think, that it’s his very flawed element that she takes on board and loves. In other words she doesn’t love the absolutist; she loves the man who’s flawed, and she believes actually, finally, probably, she can redeem him. Now, that seems to me to be a gross illusion, but it’s what she believes.
HN: And he’s left looking somewhat defeated really.
MA: Oh, absolutely, he says very clearly in the last act, “Just somebody chop my head off…”
HN: “Kill me…”
MA: “I can see no future life for myself.” So at the end of our production there are five people standing on a stage utterly, utterly bewildered at what’s just taken place. So yes, coming back to your point about how you resolve or don’t resolve, it’s quite clear that Shakespeare, since he’d tied the bows beautifully on top of the packages of the comedies, he could have done it here, and he conspicuously doesn’t. That he’s actually leaving the final punctuation as a question rather than as a full stop.
HN: Well, the Duke, when he reveals himself to be the Duke, and then takes over again, and starts dispensing justice. Has he really improved at all? I mean, he lets Barnadine off and then gets quite close to having Lucio hanged, mainly because he’s annoyed him.
MA: That’s right.
HN: And made him look a bit ridiculous.
MA: Well, the quick answer, I think, is No, I don’t think he’s improved at all, and one ending of the production that I had in mind, which I abandoned because I preferred the ending we’ve got, was that actually everybody would go off except Isabella and she would go in the opposite direction to everybody else, and before the lights went down we would hear the pounding music in a strip club that had opened the show, so in effect, the whole world had come full-circle, and frankly we were back where we started. I prefer the ending that we’ve got because I think it’s richer and it leaves you with the people, and after all they’re five people up there that we’ve been on a journey with. But no, I don’t think Vienna is any better off than it was at the beginning of the play really.
HN: No, one wonders if Shakespeare’s saying anything about his own times, of course, but we can’t ask him that.
MA: No, well, the interesting thing is, that…
HN: There were lots of questions about James’s ability to rule.
MA: Yes, indeed, and also of course, well I think that one thing we can safely say is that he was no friend of the Puritans, if for no other reason the Puritans kept trying to close the theatres and two of his company owned a brothel, right next door to the Globe. So clearly what you were and weren’t allowed to do outside the confines, the walls of the City of London, what they called the suburbs, was circumscribed by sexual mores, and if you like a kind of moral and cultural subversiveness, and he, whatever else we must know about Shakespeare, we must know that he was devoted to the theatre. So he would not have been a great friend of anybody who tried to close the theatre, and therefore, at one level was probably, broadly speaking, supportive of those who had brothels. He blatantly thought, “You’re just not going to take it away just by closing it.”
HN: Well the theatres, the brothels, and the bear-gardens were all outside the city walls and must have felt that they all had something in common.
MA: They were all lumped together, as I say, absolutely, why would two of his actors own a brothel if they disapproved? So I think it’s clear that he was no great friend of the Puritans and there’s that wonderful line in Twelfth Night when they refer to Malvolio as being a Puritan, and I think Andrew Aguecheek says, “If I thought that I’d beat him like a dog.” But this all of course comes back down to the whole question of Shakespeare’s religion. Was he Catholic; was he Protestant? But whatever else, I think he clearly was not a supporter of absolutes, of isms, he was a humanitarian.
HN: And Lucio is there to give us enough of fun and represent the lower…
MA: He is. The interesting thing, I referred earlier to the fact that there’s a sort of split-spine to the structure to the play, and I think the third element, that can make, if you don’t find a solution to this in the production, that can make the play feel rather disparate is Lucio because of course the joy of Lucio is that he really is a kind of Lord of Misrule. He’s a complete anarchist, but it’s lovely to have the kind of subversiveness of somebody coming in and doing what he wants, but if you’re trying to create the world of a particular production it seems to me you’re best placed if you can actually, if you like, find a relationship between every single character and the centre of that particular world. So, with no evidence in the text for it whatsoever, I’ve made, I’ve put Lucio right in the centre, so that when he makes his first entrance and we see the girls who we’ve seen lap-dancing on the streets with money in their hands, the money gets handed to him, and so… And indeed he’s had an illegitimate child, he’s handed it straight across to a brothel-owner to bring it up. He knows Pompey. If we learn anything about him in this show, it is that that’s where his friends are, and so I’ve put him right in… I’ve made him pimp-extraordinaire, really.
HN: Yes, he’s one of those people who always knows everybody and feels close to. Isn’t he?
MA: Yes, when I first talked to Lloyd about the character, I said, “There are one or two people who I know in life, who seem to have an in everywhere.” You could look at this person and think that, you know what, “If I saw you standing outside a strip joint in Dean Street I wouldn’t blink”, and yet, you then find yourself at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, or a high level reception somewhere, and blimey that person’s there as well. And there are people that I actually know in life, that just with a subtle change of costume, that somehow they’re just everywhere, and of course the truth of the matter is those people have tabs on everybody, they know where the bodies are buried and actually they’re very hard to pin down, and there’s a wonderful moment when Pompey asks him to stand bail for him, and he says, “No, no, no, Pompey if you’re a bawd, you should go to prison.” And he says, “But will you not help me”, and he says “No, it is not the fashion”, and I think what he’s saying is, “The current is blowing in a particularly different direction and I’m a survivor. You can’t pin me down.”
HN: But also his name does mean light of course.
HN: And he does sort of help to throw light in dark places.
MA: Yes, he does. I mean we actually went through quite a lively debate in rehearsal as to whether what he said about the Duke was in fact the truth.
HN: Well, yes, that’s another possibility.
MA: It is a possibility. I think in the end we concluded it wasn’t. But the whole notion of… there was a time when I thought, “Well maybe in fact I should implicate the Duke in the vice-trade as well”, and that actually it’s guilt that is sending him out of the world to stop all this because he realises he’s profiting from it himself and that in effect the rot went right to the top. I think that would have been bending the text and I think it would have been bending the text to suggest he was somebody, you know, who was shagging tarts in his office every evening. That seems to me to be an…
HN: He does have The Rape of the Sabine Women on the wall…
MA: He does, he does. Oh no I think, no listen I think this man is… this is not a Puritan, but I think that suggesting that Lucio’s telling the truth is probably stretching it a bit far.
MA: It certainly destroys some of the comedy if it’s true, because the comedy depends on the fact that Lucio is just gossiping.
MA: And saying, “I was an intimate, I knew him well.” Clearly he doesn’t. But I think it’s important that this anarchist at the centre of the play has a role within the overall world that we portray, and just having Shakespeare’s describe him as a fantastic, like a sort of dandy, doesn’t quite do it.
HN: However, if you just shown how Shakespeare can be read in so many ways you could do another completely different production.
MA: Oh yes, if I started again tomorrow, I’d probably do it again differently.
MA: As I said earlier, it’s the most wonderfully rewarding way with which to approach Shakespeare, even comedies, if you constantly look, you establish a truth and you ask yourself, “Is the absolute diametric opposite also true?”, and nine times out of ten, you find the word Yes waiting for you. That actually there’s a flip side to every coin and Measure, almost more than any other of his plays, demonstrates that. And after all it was written quite late on in his life, at a very, very dark time when he was writing some of the toughest tragedies, and as you rightly pointed out at the beginning, just at the end of the Elizabethan era, just at the beginning of the Jacobean era, the shift from being the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to the King’s Men. This was a time of fantastic transition and a very, very dangerous society. I mean, he’s pretty well the only playwright as far as I can work out, that never spent a period, as far as we know, in jail. He was clearly a survivor.
HN: They had tough times, some of his contemporaries.
MA: Yes, Ben Jonson was in jail, Thomas Kidd was tortured, Marlowe was murdered…
HN: Yes, Well, thank you very much Michael. Oh I should say that you can still come and see this production until April 10 and look at the website www.almeida.co.uk. Thanks very much.