Between the stag films projected at the outset, its graphic depiction of sexual assault on a virginal nun, and the self-flagellation of that assault’s perpetrator, Ensemble Theatre Company’s new production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure throws off enough transgressive heat to call for multiple trigger warnings. Yet none of these details turn out to be important in the grand Shakespearean scheme of things. The real action — as usual with the Bard — resides in the language, and in what talented actors do with it. Measure for Measure remains among Shakespeare’s most challenging works, full of dark ironies and enigmatic allegories. Thanks to the perspicuity with which the story frames the eternal linkage between male power and sexual exploitation, one hopes for a conclusion that would put Shakespeare on the side of the feminist angels, but … no such luck.
As Isabella, the novice whose purity serves as the play’s gold standard of virtue, Lily Gibson delivers a subtle and scrupulous performance lit by periodic flashes of emotional lightning. Attacked by the politician Angelo (Richard Baird), manipulated by her condemned brother Claudio (Trevor Peterson), and put through multiple excruciating, seemingly pointless tests by the Duke (AK Murtadha), Isabella retains her humanity. Personifying the subordination of women under Renaissance patriarchy, Isabella must negotiate a bewildering maze of threats, come-ons, and double standards. Her only relief from the relentless pressure to put out that rains down on her from above comes in the form of licentious lowlifes like the empathetic, if weak-willed, Lucio (Brian Ibsen).
If in the end this play seems like a portrayal of a woman’s suffering from a man’s point of view, the blame may well lie with Shakespeare. Yet there’s something about the performances in this production, particularly that of Murtadha in the finale, that suggests more. It may take another trip to the New Vic to unravel the mysteries of Shakespeare’s final comedy.