Monday, January 24, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (BBC, 1979)

The Play: Measure for Measure -- BBC
Directed by: Desmond Davis (1979)

Genre and Setting: One of the comedies, but more in the old-fashioned sense of “giving away that there’s a happy ending” than in the modern sense of “funny.” Not in this staging, at least. The setting is an anonymous “Vienna” that could be any city anywhere. Traditional Shakespearean costume is worn in well-chosen, olde-looking locations.

The Gist: The Duke pretends he’s leaving town, handing the reins to an Uptight Junior Official who, deciding to enforce the letter of the law, condemns a Popular Young Man to death for having somehow caused his girlfriend to become pregnant. The popular young man’s Virtuous Sister pleads for mercy from the Uptight Junior Official, who suddenly realizes what he’s been missing and offers to trade her brother’s life for her “virtue,” if you see what I mean. Meanwhile, the Duke has actually been sneaking around town dressed as a friar, and proposes a way out of the mess requiring only a sordid night-time switcheroo of sexual partners and an interminable final act in which all is revealed in the slowest manner possible.

Measure for Measure plays with some interesting, albeit not especially novel, ideas about hypocrisy and the abuse of power. The Uptight Junior Official’s losing struggle against his worst nature is pretty good stuff, although very out of place in what we moderns consider “comedy.” It’s certainly interesting that enforcement of a harsh penalty for pre-marital sex is unambiguously considered excessive, on the grounds that, hell, everybody does that (Puritans then and now would object, and they have a point: there was and is indeed a certain percentage of people who don’t do that). The most problematic character is The Duke, who deliberately leaves his town in the hands of a tyrant-in-waiting, sneaks around concocting dumb schemes to mitigate the damage, then comes back to dispense long, drawn-out justice and to condemn to the gallows a guy who said mildly insulting things about him while he was in disguise. In terms of power-mad villainy, Uptight Junior Official’s really no worse than The Duke.

The Adaptation: “I may not be joining you for all of these BBC productions,” says Mrs.5000, after sitting through Measure for Measure. As with last week’s Tempest, talented actors are featured within the production values of daytime soap opera. This time at least some effort was put into the sets, which are actually pretty good, but the characters are not really made to inhabit their roles. The tone is set by an early scene: some minor characters are playing a game of dice, but this is shown by them simply taking turns rolling dice. Unlike any other human who has ever played a gambling game, these guys don’t look at the numbers they have rolled. They don’t express pleasure or vexation at their luck. They simply deliver dialog. You might be able to get away with that sort of thing on stage, but in a film adaptation we’re right up close to the actors, and when they behave unnaturally it kills the sense of humanity that plays -- especially really old plays with archaic language -- desperately rely on.

Clocks In At: around two and a half hours. All the scenes are there, but occasional lines of dialog are trimmed.

Pros: The Duke is well acted, as is his Third-in-Command, a wiser administrator who is unable to temper the excesses of the Uptight Junior Official. Good sets.

Cons: Shakespeare seems to feel that the Duke is a righteous ruler who restores order, not recognizing the moral ambiguity of his own creation. It’s billed as a comedy, and ain’t funny. The production lacks any zest or vigor that might help sell the play.

Prognosis: I’m curious to see if anything can be done with this play. With this adaptation as my only exposure to it so far, I’m provisionally using Measure for Measure to start the “Bad Shakespeare” list. And unfortunately, I don’t know if I’ll have access to any other adaptations.

1 comment:

Aviatrix said...

Very nice review. I now know enough to pretend I have read it, and enough to avoid that particular production.