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Measure for Measure (Susan Elkin reviews)

Cygnet Theatre, Rosemary Branch.

Measure for Measure is a strange play but I used to teach it to A level students and I love it. Part of its difficulty is that so few or the characters are likeable – almost all are flawed but that’s what makes it so interesting and, of course make it such a good choice for a small company of actors in training. Every role is a meaty one and spread amongst a cast of just six it becomes a real showcase for versatility and talent (not to mention quick changes).

Isabella (Jessica Parsons), a nunnery novice, is propostioned by Angelo (Guy Dennys) who is deputising for Lucentio (Jake Sullivan) as Duke of Vienna when she pleads with him for the life of her brother sentenced to death for fornication. These three actors graduate from Cygnet Training Theatre in Exeter this month. The other three cast members are still part-way through their course.

Well it’s a fascinating idea to double the passionate Isabella, ardently suppressing her own sexuality with ailing, forthright Mistress Overdone the brothel owner and Parsons, who plays other minor roles as well, brings incisive intelligence to both. She’s at her most disturbing when gazing unsmilingly into religious ecstasy as Isabella. I suspect she has studied Bernini’s statue of St Teresa pretty carefully.

Another intriguing doubling idea is to get Marissa Rowell to play a female Pompey – simpering, hip swinging, delivering killer lines and definitely off to sleep with Abhorson, the executioner – as well as the troubled decent Provost, one of the few straightforwardly good guys in this troubled play. Both are a good example of gender-neutral casting although she’s also strong as the needy Mariana who finally gets Angelo as a husband (although one fears for their future) and is delighted to do so.

As Angelo (and other roles) Dennys is suitably “precise” and “snow broth” until his darker urges get the better of him. There’s remorse at the end though – or distress at being rumbled – and Dennys’s shoulder shaking audible sobbing on his knees with his back to the audience is both effective and affecting. He happens to be physically bigger than anyone else in the cast too so that adds to his visual authority.

Damian Schedler Cruz is strong as feather collared, immoral, self interested, cruel and loquacious Lucio and Scott Simpson brings exasperated gravitas to Escalus and anguish to Claudio.

It is, however, Jake Sullivan as the morally ambiguous, manipulative Duke who really stands out. He speaks Shakespeare’s lines with a clarity and freshness which many an actor twice his age would envy and his every action is both naturalistic and convincing. He deserves to get good professional work very quickly.

Music underpins this production (Sullivan, who co-wrote and arranged it with Stephen Copp and Jaquie Crago. is also good on the guitar) so we get monastic chants, rather sinister nursery rhymes and an ensemble piece for Mariana’s entertainment in her moated grange. It adds atmosphere and – incidentally – demonstrates additional skills in this talented young cast.

It’s a concise take on the play – more or less “two hours traffic of our stage – which bowls along at an admirably slick pace although the cuts don’t really show. And as for that ending in which Lucentio, after treating her appallingly, expects Isabella to marry him? Well it should be left ambiguous and Alistair Ganley clearly agrees with me. I enjoyed it very much.

First published by Sardines http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Cygnet%20Theatre%20(student%20productions)-Measure%20for%20Measure&reviewsID=2898

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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