Saskatoon theatre company takes a fresh approach to lesser-known Shakespeare comedy

Theatre | Gregory Beatty

Measure For Measure
The Refinery
March 16–26

This debut production of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure by the new Saskatoon theatre company The Coterie has been four years in the making. Although when company members first got together in October 2019, it wasn’t with the intention of performing, said director Bob Wicks in a recent phone interview.

Wicks teaches drama at the University of Saskatchewan, and also works professionally in Saskatoon’s theatre community.

“I’d taught most of the group in third and fourth year voice classes. They were digging what I was teaching, so when they expressed interest in continuing their professional development outside university we got a space and started doing ‘Shakespeare with Bob’ classes,” he recalls, of the company’s 2019 origins.

“We did that through the winter, and had plans to keep going, but then the pandemic hit. So we switched to online,” he says. “When we were working we’d take snippets of plays and speeches, then finally we decided to apply what we were learning to a whole text.”

Measure For Measure was the play they ended up choosing.“We wanted something that wasn’t really well-known, and had some comedy to it,” he says. “So we started dissecting Measure For Measure,and found a pretty cool story in it.”

Irreverent Reverence

Fans of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan may recognize Wicks from his work there, both on stage and off, over the past decade. Before settling in his hometown of Saskatoon to teach and work, Wicks did an International Actors’ Fellowship at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England. So he’s “well-versed” in the Bard.

“When I was in London, Globe Theatre had just come out of their original practice phase where they were doing things as authentic as possible like with actors being sewn into their costumes because they wouldn’t have had zippers or velcro back then,” says Wicks.

“They were also only using men because that’s what it’s thought Shakespeare’s company did. It was useful for exploring, but for a company mandate, it’s not even financially viable, let alone artistically rewarding. It also excludes a lot of artists who simply wouldn’t have been on stage back then,” he says.

While the Globe may have taken it to the nth degree, Shakespeare is often still performed in a reverent way with strict adherence to theatrical conventions. But common too are new takes on plays where companies re-envision key elements such as time period, setting, language and gender to offer a fresh take on the Bard.

That’s something Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan is known for, says Wicks. “From the early days, the big question was what approach were they taking to their plays? One of the early ones, I remember, took place on a golf course. Another was set in the Roaring Twenties.”

Coterie’s production includes elements of both approaches, but boldly charts its own path.

The setting remains Vienna, with Duke Vincentio going undercover in the city, leaving the pious (but corrupt and venal) Angelo in charge. Having impregnated his girlfriend Juliet, Claudio runs afoul of Angelo’s new religious regime and is sentenced to death for fornication. His sister Isabelle, a novice nun, visits Angelo to plead for Claudio’s life. He agrees to pardon him, but with one condition.

For modern audiences, the condition Angelo imposes, that Isabella surrender her virginity to him, screams #MeToo. People who follow politics will also see in Angelo elements of the Christian nationalist/fascist “spirit” that dominates right-wing conservatism these days. Starting with the title, there’s even an “eye for an eye” sense of justice in some of the scenes that recalls conservative politicking around being “tough on crime”.

Because those scenes translated so well to present day, the company didn’t need to do much work with them, says Wicks. The comedy scenes, though, struck them as being too obscure to be funny.

“That happens when you make jokes about things you shouldn’t be joking about — like authority figures. If they didn’t like the show or thought they were portrayed in a bad light you could be exiled or executed. So Elizabethans were highly censored,” he says.

Even in Shakespeare’s day audiences likely wouldn’t have got all the jokes. But the comedy ages poorly, says Wicks.

“So we decided to be irreverent with the text by writing our own jokes and even whole scenes. That’s based on the understanding that the comedy’s purpose was to shift tone, but with the archival text, we didn’t see that happening,” he says.

“I sometimes think we’re telling the story they wished they could have told because we have greater creative freedom to lampoon our authority figures and highlight their hypocrisy,” he says.

The company wrote in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan text, and also adopted another convention of the time related to costumes and set — but with a neat twist.

“When I was at the Globe in London, one costumer said ‘If we’re keeping in the spirit of original practice, everyone on stage wore contemporary clothing because it was usually donated by rich patrons’. So the actors more or less matched what the audience was wearing. So that’s what we’re doing,” says Wicks.

“We don’t really have a set either. We have a desk, a bench. I don’t think a lot of set pieces were used back then, because it would have got in the way of people seeing the play. With Act V of most Shakespeare plays, everyone usually ends up on stage. Good luck trying to do that with a complicated set,” he laughs.

There is music, though. And dance. Even some karaoke. All with the goal of building bridges with the audience. Bridges that would be more difficult to build, Wicks thinks, if the company took a traditional “doublets, hose and pumpkin pants” approach to the play.

The company’s unique collaborative approach to revising the text should help build bridges too, says Wicks.

“There are six or seven people… from the first time we opened the book, they were like ‘I am looking after this character. I am telling their story.’ Doing it that way instead of through the traditional playwright introduces multiple perspectives, so audiences will hopefully have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the characters,” he says.

“As a company, we don’t have a priority to give every audience member the same show. Everyone brings their own unique experience, so they will hear words, see characters, and interpret scenes differently,” he says. “We may have our own perspective as a company, but we will let characters say and do things we disagree with. So it’s going to be complicated.” ■