A glimpse into our 1970s Measure for Measure
Having already directed Bartholomew Fair, Blanche McIntyre returns once again to the warmth of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to direct one of Shakespeare’s most loved dark comedies
It’s 1975. Britain is on the verge of financial and political crisis. Inflation has soared, unemployment is at an all-time high, and political polarisation is continuing to rupture the country into two halves.
Set in a society where sex outside marriage is punishable by death, Measure for Measure tells the story of Claudio, a teenager facing execution for getting the girl he intends to marry, Juliet, pregnant. His sister, Isabella, pleads for his life, and is faced with a choice that no woman should ever be forced to make.
Blanche McIntyre’s production of Measure for Measure invites us into a transformative mid-1970s Britain and covers themes of sexual licence and warped democracy; themes, she says, still resonate today: “Thematically, the play is about consent and, as a woman, that speaks to me very strongly”. Indeed, those familiar with the #MeToo movement will recognise the parallel with present day gender politics. Told from the perspective of Isabella, Blanche’s production offers a fresh and unique perspective on women’s voices.
“Thematically, the play is about consent and, as a woman, that speaks to me very strongly”
The play, Blanche explains, is one that lends itself to quite striking re-imaginings, because the themes of it are both so powerful and current. Indeed, its ability to fit into contemporary themes has lent itself to myriad radical reworkings, including Joe Hill-Gibbins’ radical version at the Young Vic in 2015, which opened with a mass of inflatable sex dolls, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2019 production, directed by Gregory Doran, centred around its links with the #MeToo movement. Blanche’s vision will recognise themes surrounding government, culture wars, and the polarisation of society – all applicable to today but also strikingly similar to British life in the 1970s.
Setting the production in 70s Britain was a conscious choice to move it away from contemporary life, but not so contemporary that the strong religious themes would be out of place. “Two of the main characters have a very, very strong religious faith and, it seemed to me”, she explains, “that if I were to set it in contemporary Britain, then they would seem to be a minority in the way that they imagine the world and understand their faith – whereas if I moved it back a bit, then it is still a Christian majority world, and so they are not outlying in that respect”. It is a priority for Blanche, she says, for the audience to be able to connect with the themes of the play: “I think there is never any point doing any play if it doesn’t speak to the people watching it. By using a slightly removed setting, which will still be familiar to a lot of people, I can mirror contemporary experience without closing down a range of interpretations”.
Set in a particularly tumultuous time in British history, Blanche’s Measure for Measure is surrounded by a controversial Wilson government, and a newly elected head of opposition [Margaret Thatcher] who was “coming out with some very hard-line rhetoric about immigration, and steering the Overton window, you might say, quite sharply to the right”. This, she explains, is “foreshadowing phenomena like the rise of the National Front, later increasing racism, increasing pushback against what has formerly been quite a liberal way of thinking about the world”. ‘Culture wars’ is a term that rises often for Blanche. Arguments surrounding sexual licentiousness seemingly appear out of nowhere, serving as, she suggests, “a distraction to foreign affairs and other problems within the government. Angelo is put in charge to run a new, much more hard-line regime, and the idea is that this will distract from what is going on with the King of Hungary, and other affairs that are not going to the Dukes’ liking”. Familiarity with the context of 1970’s Britain, however, is not important, she insists. “You should come because it’s a satire, it’s a comedy, and it’s a thriller. There’s 24 hours to save this guy’s life, and no one knows how they’re going to do it”.
“You should come because it’s a satire, it’s a comedy, and it’s a thriller. There’s 24 hours to save this guy’s life, and no one knows how they’re going to do it”
Blanche explains her excitement about directing this play in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. “There is something about this space, which is very intimate, very magic. It’s unlike any other theatre”. This will be fifth time she returns to the Globe, having previously directed As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, and The Winter’s Tale in the Globe Theatre and Bartholemew Fair in the Playhouse. “When [the play] moves into the prison setting, where there is the possibility of redemption, and the possibility of saving people, there is something about the Playhouse which makes the action seem very close, very possible, and very collective, because were all so close to each other and everyone can see everyone’s face”.
Hierarchy and privilege serve as underpinning themes in the play which, she says, is very fitting to the physical structure of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Claudio, the teenager who gets his girlfriend pregnant, is from a wealthy, establishment background. Whilst this contributes to his being ‘made an example of’, it also means various exception are made, and strings pulled on the grounds that he ‘comes from a good family’, and ‘his father was so noble’. “There is something about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse which is very hierarchical. It’s vertical, and it’s a very close space but also very high – whereas the Globe is much more democratic”. The layout is suitably reflective of the themes of the play, wherein treatment of different classes affects many of the major decisions and plot. Therefore, the varying degrees of who sits where means that each segment of the audience is able to view the action from a different position in society.
“I tend to think that the darker the action is, the more crucial it is to have jokes in it to make it watchable for the audience. You have to give them an opportunity to let off steam”
Commonly known as one of Shakespeare’s most popular dark comedies, it can prove a complex task to pair the seriousness of the themes with humour. Blanche, however, is more concerned with uniting, as opposed to balancing the two. “I tend to think that the darker the action is, the more crucial it is to have jokes in it to make it watchable for the audience. You have to give them an opportunity to let off steam”.
Funny, thrilling, and frightening are the three words Blanche uses to describe the show.