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Big Cast, Big Text: Measure for Measure

Vienna is an undeniably shady place littered with ambiguous dukes in disguise, nuns who are almost too righteous to be right and at least one couple in a spot of trouble – at least that’s what Company B Belvoir would have you believe. Benedict Andrews’ astounding yet characteristically controversial re-imagining of Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s most troublesome plays, proves that great drama is all about sex and power (and a killer cast).

Maeve Dermody plays the accidentally pregnant Juliet and says she “jumped at the chance to experience repertoire theatre and be part of a big cast and a big text”. Andrews himself was also a pretty major drawcard: “Benedict is really important in our theatre scene. He is becoming quite a master at re-engineering classical texts; really shifting them and making them make sense for a contemporary audience.” For her first professional Shakespearian endeavour, Maeve seems to have selected one of the trusty Bard’s most ambitious, challenging and arresting pieces. “It’s a problematic play. You read it and go, ‘what the hell, how do you resolve this?’, and it’s such a borderline play in terms of genre”. Indeed, the riveting combination of tragedy and comedy has made it a difficult play to perform and stomach for a good few centuries.

The set, designed by Ralph Myers, is a claustrophobic and less than elegant hotel room framed by two hanging screens, and it is one that intricately entwines Shakespeare’s classic with our own oh-so-familiar world. Cameras wielded by the cast, hidden behind furniture and lurking menacingly on the roof eerily capture even the most intimate action. All of this is meant to mirror our obsession with voyeurism, the almost comical rise of celebrity sex tapes and the idea that absolutely everything is for sale. Clearly Myers is going to take Company B in some rather rad (albeit risky) directions when he takes over artistic directorship at the end of the year.

Even the cast, with their intimidating wealth of experience and passion for the absurd, found the use of the cameras interesting. As Maeve notes, “when we were first testing it out it was quite experimental. It got to the point that we scraped the camera from some scenes because we couldn’t see an actor or it broke up the space between actors. The initial rehearsals were really just a testing ground so what was left in the final product wa completely comfortable” … for the performers at least.

With a director as radical and uninhibited as Andrews, it’s amazing that the characters and content don’t stalk the actors home – or at least loiter for a post show cup of tea. Realistically, it’s “the energy [that] lingers … It’s a very interesting area; where actors put the residuals while they are working and even after a performance is finished. It starts to mingle with your life from time to time”. However, it is this energy that keeps audiences constantly (and justifiably) begging for more and effortlessly forces actors to shift and evolve. “That’s the beautiful thing about theatre… it does change, the dynamic is always different and that’s the only way you can keep doing it.” Well, that and the fact Sydneysiders have a rather epic crush on theatre itself – a point Maeve agrees upon. “I think we really value and make good theatre in this country … [even if it means] we are much greater supporters of our theatre than our films”.

Once the blackly funny and fantastically tense Measure for Measure ends its run on July 25, Maeve will continue her extended rendezvous with the Australian stage in STC’s Our Town. You have to admire an actor’s stamina!

This is Measure for Measure's last weekend at the Belvoir Street Theatre, so now would be the time to buy tickets. They're $57 and can be purchased here.

words: Liz Schaffer


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