Not Your Normal Shakespeare – Measure For Measure in Warragul

Angelo (Adrian Chance Darakai) and Isabelle (Issie Stephens)

In a confident move for Warragul Theatre Company, when selecting shows for their 2017 program, the committee decided to seek out a straight play to add to their long list of highly successful musicals – and what a choice they settled on.

While not exactly a leap into the unknown, and cleverly aligning it with this year’s Year 12 English curriculum, the company selected Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

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Often described as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, over the centuries it has variously been labelled a comedy, black comedy, tragedy and tragicomedy with elements of deception and disguise, mistaken identity, family drama, multiple plots, and death and corruption.

The play is set in Vienna where there has been a crackdown on the licentious townspeople, whose duke, Vincentio (Alfred Paulio) hands over power to his deputy, Angelo (Adrian Chance) – before slipping into a friar’s disguise to watch from nearby. Angelo, eager to restore morality to his domain, arrests Claudio (Sami Lee), who has gotten his beloved Juliet (Jasmine Mead) pregnant and sentences him to death.  Claudio’s sister Isabella (Issie Stephens), a religious novice on the verge of entering the sisterhood, learns of his arrest and pleads with Angelo to spare her brother.

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Angelo finds himself tempted by Isabella’s beauty and purity, and offers to pardon Claudio if she will sleep with him. Isabella refuses and tells her brother that he must prepare himself for death.

Has Claudio (Sami Lee) been arrested by the police (Michael Winterton and Ross Stephens)?. Photo by Nathaniel Joel McLean

From here the twists and turns of the play are many, with minor characters providing the comic action along the way, and the play is finally resolved in one of the most artificial (and humorous) “happy endings” in the history of Western literature.

Whatever others have thought of the play, when director Steven Wiegerink learnt about Warragul’s choice, he leapt at the opportunity to direct.  A co-founder of Off the Leash Productions, and a school teacher by trade, Wiegerink has been teaching drama and performing arts at high schools in the region for 15 years and has been involved in theatre as an actor or director for most of his life.

Wiegerink himself describes Measure For Measure as a bit of a challenge, and something audiences may not be used to, but through an ingenious mix of creative actor direction and dramatic inspiration this production is designed to keep the play moving and the audience engaged.

Cast Bella Hallam, Jessica Stephens, Kaley Ward, Deb Welch, Ross Stephens and Liz Lubberink up to no good. Photo by Nathaniel Joel McLean.

While some professional productions fiddle with the text to shorten the play’s speeches and monologues, Wiegerink was set on keeping the 400 year old words true to their creator and instead focussed on ensuring the characters are as interesting and playful as possible.  Even though the cast are mostly drawn from the “stable” of actors from Warragul more familiar with musicals rather than Shakespeare, all have responded to the unique direction and developed their skills to a level suited to an engaging and dramatic “execution” of this problematic Shakespeare play.

Audiences can expect a unique production, with Wiegerink finding ways to inject interest and excitement into every scene to keep the play moving along at great pace.  Live music features heavily in this production with local percussionist Roger Terrill bringing sound elements into each scene to ensure nothing is too much the same for too long.

And while the text is 400 years old, Wiegerink is incorporating contemporary world politics into the look and feel of the play by presenting an almost post-apocalyptic (or possibly post Trump) world through clever use of costumes, and creative staging that focuses on the symbolic and representative, to ensure audiences are engaged throughout.

Francesca (Marjorie Clements) Pompey (Deb Welch) Provost (Michael Winterton) Elbow (Liz Lubberink) Varius (Georgia Green) Claudio (Sami Lee). Photo by Nathaniel Joel McLean

And just to make it even more difficult, the usual theatre space is not available, so Wiegerink will be applying his skills transforming a space more suited to exhibition stalls rather than the exhibits of the world’s most well-known playwright.  But even here challenges bring opportunities.  To make up for the lack of usual theatre lighting (and no three phase power!), Wiegerink is creatively using techniques such as hand held lighting, elements of projection, silhouette and a whole range of effects that need only minimal lighting.  As Wiegerink says, directing is all about problem solving and finding creative solutions, which often result in serendipitous (and spectacular) outcomes, which may not ever get to see the light of day in a more “normal” theatre space.

Wiegerink hopes that Warragul can continue to do more plays, and while this may be a first for Warragul, the enthusiasm and energy he has developed on and off the stage will ensure this won’t be the last.