Eleanor Costello meets the cast of Measure for Measurejohannes hjorth

“In my head, it looks and feels like a really good TV-thriller. People go on and on about it being a ‘problem play’ – I don’t even know what that is. That’s a made-up thing.”

Tom Littler is the professional director of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, The Marlowe Society’s annual production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. We’re sat around a table in the penthouse rehearsal space at the theatre – a huge, airy room with lots of windows, littered with chairs and scripts. Robbie Taylor Hunt, the assistant director, and Mark Milligan, who plays the Duke, are sat with us. Initially both very chatty, Robbie in particular is hard to ignore; he greeted me in the foyer with a loud “Eleanor, at last! I’ve just been assaulting several young women hoping that they were you!” But as soon as Tom entered the room, Robbie and Mark became much quieter, always watching him out of the corner of their eyes. Tom continues:

“I don’t think that Shakespeare is remotely worried about tragedy and comedy. This is a drama, a thriller. I think in contemporary terms it would be a two-part BBC-HBO co-production, and it’s kind of moody and side-lit and dark, and really gripping, really exciting”. He leans back, munching on his salad contemplatively. “It’s a great, great story. I mean if you’re telling this story to people who don’t know anything about the play you say – “there’s a dramatic pause. I know that what is about to follow is going to be good”. Tom leans forward. “There’s a Duke who gives up his power,” he says slowly, in a low voice. “He hands it over to this really dangerous man, deliberately, knowing he’s really dangerous and kind of unhinged. And then having said that he is going away to Poland, he stays. And he watches, in disguise. And the first thing that happens is that this nice, middle-class, Waitrose-shopping man gets slung in prison for impregnating his fiancée. And this man’s sister is a nun. And she straight away goes to the dangerous ruler, and the dangerous ruler offers her a deal.” I gaze at Tom, spellbound. “It’s a movie pitch!” he concludes.

“I think I’ve seen that film!” Robbie laughs.

Tom nods. “He’s so modern, Shakespeare, he’s so of our time. In Shakespeare’s own time they understood it, but then Puritans got hold, and obviously it is the Puritans who get a slam-dunking in the play. So from 1640 onwards it wasn’t shown, it was out of the rep for nearly 300 years. Then when it was finally shown on stage again it had to be rewritten and they put songs in it, because they just couldn’t deal with it. It seems to me to be completely of our time, with our obsession with the self and our worries about how to behave.”

It’s fascinating to hear Tom speak about the play, because I can hear that his language and his ideas have completely seeped into Mark and Robbie’s perceptions of the play. Mark is a very experienced actor, and I’ve seen him in several student productions in Cambridge, shifting each time almost beyond recognition as he inhabits each character. In the flesh, he’s very intense, as some actors are: quietly watchful, very focused, pulsing with energy. He was the lead in The Marlowe Society’s Henry V last year at the Arts Theatre, and he talks about working in the space. “Realising the bigger scale is really exciting. At one point I looked up and suddenly went ‘Oh, there are people above as well!’ It’s a very different feeling and very exciting. The space feels really epic, and you need that authority. Working with Tom as a professional director working in industry is also so great because it’s such a different process.”

Robbie is similarly enthusiastic about the theatre. “The stage is massive, and that’s an important factor. You have to command that huge auditorium. But just being in the Arts Theatre is amazing, because this is a professional production with a professional team. Simon Kenny, who is our designer, is brilliant; he can usually be found at The National or The Globe. And Tom knows his Shakespeare really well, so he has brought an element of brilliance to the production. Well, I’m saying this with him in the room,” Robbie grins sheepishly, as he looks at Tom. I ask Tom how he cast the actors. “We were doing a fair bit of converting of the characters’ genders, which meant that it was quite open. We were prepared to be persuaded by people coming in, and surprised by people, so there were quite a lot of characters that we had both men and women auditioning for.” Tom stabs his salad nonchalantly with a fork. I ask him how comfortable he feels with gender-swapping parts and playing with Shakespeare’s script. “There’s a big push for female roles at the moment and it’s really exciting. It’s easier with Shakespeare than some other playwrights because you have a certain flexibility; we can pick a world in which it makes perfect sense for Escalus, as an authority figure, to become a woman.” Tom clarifies with relish that this production has six male actors and seven female actors.

Tom is fiercely opinionated on adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience: “Occasionally I’ve swapped out a word I don’t think anybody understands for a word that I think people do understand. I always keep it within the vocabulary he uses within his plays. I’ve done that because I think if we, sitting in this room analysing, can’t understand it and find a way of using it that makes sense to us, then it’s perverse to keep it. That’s a debate in Shakespeare performance at the moment: Greg Doran says that you can cut the play, but never change a word. Nick Hytner says: “What’s the point of saying it if people can’t understand it? I don’t see the point of doing incomprehensible work for the sake of a playwright – who [sic]I revere, love and who has changed my life – but who has been dead for 400 years. I think he’d be okay with me changing it.” I move the focus back to Measure for Measure itself, asking what they think the message is at the heart of the play. Tom looks at Mark, who hesitates. “Go on, I’m curious to see what you say,” Tom says. Mark frowns, deep in concentration.

“Mercy”, Mark eventually says, softly. “Mercy, mercy, mercy.” There is a long pause, where I begin to wonder if that’s all that he’s going to say. Then he goes on: “He’s the protagonist, the hero; he saves the day, but the way that he achieves it is really questionable. That’s the great thing about the play; there’s so much malleability and flexibility, and it raises a lot of moral and ethical questions about the Duke and his conduct. He’s realising that if you are going to be a leader or a politician, it’s about having this balance of mercy.”

Tom sits thoughtfully, mulling over this. We all look at him expectantly. He makes us wait for a few seconds before he answers. “I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a message from Shakespeare”, he says. “I don’t know if he thinks in those terms. He problematises things, complicates things, throws up questions, takes stuff that you think you are really comfortable with and throws it around, disrupts the pattern of your thinking – in exactly the areas Mark has highlighted. I think the repression thing is really interesting. Somewhere in the middle between being repressed and doing whatever you want to do is a middle path, where you are healthy but also you’re not hurting people. Because Angelo swings from someone who is completely repressed to someone whose ‘id’, to put it in Freudian terms, takes over, which makes him a very dangerous person. Shakespeare is exploring what’s healthy but also considerate.

“One of the other things he asks is how you balance, whether it’s in government or your life, the competing demands of what is just and what is fair, what is merciful. It’s about the New Testament world of forgiving wrongs; when people wrong you, how do you respond to that? I think Shakespeare is really interested in that, and I don’t think he gives a straightforward answer. I don’t think that there is a straightforward answer. We begin in a place that is a city falling apart, and it’s because a ruler, the Duke, sees everyone else’s point of view too much and consequently never enforces justice of any kind. And then you switch to a ruler who enforces justice at the cost of everything else, and the city’s a mess in a different way, and still it doesn’t actually make the city any better. And then you have a woman, Isabella, who has every reason to, with full justice, punish Angelo – but she doesn’t. She extends an act of mercy, even though the ‘just’ thing to do would be to punish him. We see justice and mercy put into conflict again and again, when the ‘just’ thing and the ‘merciful’ thing are not necessarily the same.”

Robbie agrees enthusiastically. “You definitely walk out with lots of questions, thinking ‘what would I have done if I had to deal with that?’” I ask Robbie about his favourite moment of the play. “I’m quite jealous of all the characters who get to romp around being prostitutes and brothel owners. In our version we have a female pimp and male prostitutes, so we’re not being super gendered. It’s just a free-for-all of sexual deviants. A particular favourite moment involves Pompey, who is a pimp played by Aoife Kennan. She is arrested, and she manages to manipulate the executioner so that they’re best friends and drinking buddies – and she does a little seducing with a pencil,” Robbie laughs wickedly.

“Gosh, don’t give that away!” Tom scolds. “Maybe it’s with a pen, or with a hole-punch,” Robbie is quick to add. I laugh along with him. When I turn around Tom is giving me a speculative look. “So,” he says, “Did you get what you came here for?”

Measure for Measure is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre at 7:45 pm, Wednesday 10th - Saturday 13th February, and at 2:30 pm on Thursday 11th and Saturday 13th February.