Having tackled two of Shakespeare’s better known tragedies in East Vancouver recently, director Kevin Bennett is not only taking on one of the Bard’s lesser known plays, he is moving on up to the south side of town with a production of Measure for Measure at Pacific Theatre.
“I knew once King Lear opened last year that I wanted to do a less mainstream Shakespeare,” says Bennett. “I wanted to do something that not everyone knows.”
Armed with that and the knowledge that Pacific Theatre’s Artistic Director Ron Reed had an affinity for this particular piece of Shakespeare, Bennett found himself pitching the idea of Measure for Measure as a guest production. The result is what Bennett calls “a great collaboration”.
For Reed, Measure for Measure first came up thirty years ago while he was dreaming of his own theatre company and a show he knew he was destined to produce “because it’s such a complex, in-your-face challenge about moral quandaries.”
More than mere destiny though, both Bennett and Reed agree the themes explored in Measure for Measure have a very real place in our contemporary world, despite having been written over four hundred years ago.
“In many ways it feels the most contemporary because it is not about kings and princes as it is about what happens when a new leader of a society takes over and what that leader does,” explains Bennett. “You see it as much today as you did back then. It is quite amazing how modern and articulate Shakespeare was about the role of leadership.”
“There is a problem that arises when people in power use that power to force people into difficult situations,” echoes Reid from the show’s publicity materials.
Much of its contemporary themes are also mirrored in the production’s design, a hallmark of previous Honest Fishmongers shows. But where previous years have seen innovation in set design, with Measure for Measure Bennett is exploring the use of lighting and a hybrid of modern and Jacobean costumes to provide additional access points to Shakespeare’s text.
“With Christopher’s (costume designer Christopher David Gauthier) designs we have a modern blend with the Jacobean where we can create our own world,” Bennett explains.
“When [Kevin] first said he was really attracted to Jacobean elements, I knew there was no way I could do it with the budget we had,” confesses Gauthier. “But as we talked further we came around to a mix of modern and period that serves the story well.”
Finding that right balance of the modern and Jacobean for Gauthier is in discovering the touchstones that help to visually define a period.
“Collars are an obvious example of the period and I approached the design by thinking at what it might be like if the Jacobeans were still alive today,” says Gauthier who also used pop culture to help the actors and production team understand how he draws inspiration from two distinct time periods.
“I used a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial as reference,” laughs Gauthier. “A Peanut Butter Cup is a chocolate bar heavily influenced by peanuts. It is a harmonious whole, as opposed to simply sticking a chocolate bar into a jar of peanut butter.”
Chocolate metaphors aside, Gauthier says that one of the things that makes the melding of modern and Jacobean easier is in the philosophy that he and Bennett share: that theatre is meant to be theatrical.
“I don’t feel the need to make an audience forget that what they are seeing is theatrical,” says Gautier. “They do not necessarily have to read it as real and this play is theatrical with huge capital letters.”