Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Royal Shakespeare Company and Catholicism

This week I saw and greatly enjoyed the RSC production of Measure for Measure. I had feared the worst, having read some pretty unfavourable reviews and some less than complimentary comments about Catholicism in the notes provided for teachers. However, it was fascinating to see Measure for Measure performed as a comedy first and as a Problem Play second.

Nevertheless, there were some curious moments, such as the nuns' and friars' first entries. They were chanting in a curious invented language. This is how Dave Price, the Music and Sound Designer explained his thinking:

"My job is to make sure that the music and sound helps with the storytelling: helps the audience to connect with the world that the story happens in. So, the Friars, for example, live in a harsh world, serving a God that they have to work hard for. They go out and minister to the people of Vienna, and minister therefore in a harsh environment, including the prison. So the style of singing for the Friars is inspired by Georgian music and the polyphonic singing tradition of that country. It is hard, bold, edged. I looked at Georgian prayers and wrote them out in English and then abstracted the words even further so that they are an invented language, with a focus on sounds that evoke the Friars rather than a specific language. The music for them is loud and overt. Whereas the music for the Nuns is inspired by Bulgarian music. It isn’t a cultural choice, more a stylistic choice. The words are an invented language again, but this time inspired by the sounds of the Polish language. I studied in Poland. I think we all draw on our own life experiences to create our work. I wanted something which would evoke the lives of the Poor Clares, who, unlike the Friars, live their lives completely shut away from the outside world. The Bulgarian tradition includes unaccompanied female singing, which resonates with the Poor Clare lifestyle, and the resonance in the production of sound feels like the resonance of the cloister. I looked at the research the company had done about the Poor Clare lifestyle and the music for the Nuns is inspired by that."

This is all very interesting but it did mean that the friars and nuns didn't sound like real friars or nuns.

I was reminded of the 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which an actor paraded around the stage with an empty monstrance at various key moments during the play. I suppose this may have been a clever piece of symbolism designed to show how inter-family feuding had driven true religion from the city but, then again, it may have been a superficial and ill-conceived attempt to create a sense of time and place.

This might seem pretty unimportant but, as I've suggested before, it's difficult to sit on the fence when it comes to Measure for Measure, a play about a postulant nun and a duke who disguises himself as a friar. What we make of Catholicism fundamentally affects what we make of the play. Let's take two examples.

What do we make of the duke-friar's advice to Mariana in IV.i when encouraging her to trick Angelo into sleeping with her? "He is your husband on a pre-contract: / To bring you thus together 'tis no sin".

And what about his apparent breaking of the seal of the confessional in III.i? "Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt her; only he hath made an assay of her virtue to practise his judgment with the disposition of natures. ... I am Confessor to Angelo, and I know this to be true".

For any Catholic, these are pretty serious matters and so it would be difficult for any Catholic audience, I would suggest, to see the Duke as a benevolent deus ex machina. As many critics and directors have suggested, he seems to be more problem than solution. But that was not how he was presented in this production. The Duke was a likeable character who got his woman in the end.

However, it is entirely possible that the RSC in this production was closer in spirit to the original production than Catholics might like to think. Shakespeare's original audience (and Shakespeare himself) may well have shared the RSC's lack of respect for Catholic practice and belief. If that was the case then the duke's failings could much more easily have been played as comedy. Maybe seeing Measure for Measure as a Problem Play is a particularly Catholic approach to take.

P.S. The most useful of the RSC's notes for teachers can be found here.

P.P.S. Bess Twiston-Davies has some interesting things to say in this week's Catholic Herald about another of the RSC's current productions, The Heresy of Love.

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