Dramas of Faith and Fallibility

Both Measure for Measure and Mary Stuart are driven by tensions between church, state and human desire

By Melissa Walker and David Prosser

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful,” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca. Human perspective and motive, as Seneca suggested, often colour the meaning of religion. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, to be directed next season by Martha Henry, and in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, to be directed by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino, religious ideals collide with – or are tainted by – power and desire.

Though listed as a comedy in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, Measure for Measure raises darker and more complex questions than that categorization might suggest. It is sometimes described as a “problem play” – and indeed, says director Martha Henry, it “presents a specific problem of character, of identity, of religious belief, and quite specific problems of legislature.”

The play begins with Duke Vincentio (to be played by Geraint Wyn Davies) appointing the meticulous Angelo (Tom Rooney) to act as his deputy during his temporary absence. Vowing to wipe the city clean of sins that the Duke has previously tolerated, Angelo orders the execution of Claudio, a young man whose betrothed, Juliet, has become pregnant.

At the urging of Claudio’s friend Lucio (Stephen Ouimette), Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Carmen Grant), an ardent Catholic who intends to enter a nunnery, appears before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life – and immediately becomes the object of Angelo’s own illicit desire. He proposes a bargain to spare Claudio – which Isabella, as a novitiate, cannot accept. Angelo then threatens to add torture to Claudio’s sentence.

Isabella’s refusal “is something that a modern-day audience often cannot understand,” says Ms Henry. “But if you are raised as a Catholic, what she is doing is protecting her soul. She is about to be married to God, and therefore to accept Angelo’s proposal is to blaspheme in God’s eyes, thereby destroying her soul.”

Angelo is a fascinating counterpoint to Isabella, for he too has striven for uprightness of character, at least in principle. “He is appalled by the fact that he is sexually aroused by this woman. He finds it despicable on his own part, so he’s an interesting mixture of needs and wants and repressions and intellect.”

Reflecting the play’s intrigue-filled plot and the complexity of the characters, Ms Henry’s production will be presented in the style of 1940s film noir.

Measure for Measure has a kind of underbelly to it that is murky and secretive and surprising and slightly mysterious,” she says. “The two main characters are adamant that they have no sensuality, and clearly they’re teeming with it.”

Like Measure for Measure, Friedrich Schiller’s tragedy Mary Stuart, written in 1800, examines complex tensions between faith, desire and secular authority – tensions that in this case result in religion being pressed into the service of power.

“It’s a great Enlightenment play,” says director Antoni Cimolino. “Schiller looks at disagreements based upon faith with a certain amount of questioning and skepticism. His view seems to be that faith becomes simply a tool for the ends that politicians want to achieve.”

Schiller’s play depicts the last days in the life of Mary Stuart, the exiled former queen of Scotland. The Catholic Mary (played by Lucy Peacock) is imprisoned in Fotheringhay Castle for her alleged involvement in a plot to kill her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England (Seana McKenna). Although she insists on her innocence, Mary does admit to having wished to rule both England and Scotland – and Elizabeth is well aware that Mary’s Catholic supporters believe in her divine right to the throne. But the two women themselves are not the only people on whom Mary’s fate will depend.

“These two queens are themselves being manipulated in a male-dominated society,” says Mr. Cimolino. “We see them positioned as religious icons: one as Mary Magdalene, the other as the Virgin Mary. We see politicians making cynical and dispassionate use of religious fanaticism to advance what they consider to be the national interest.

“You wonder how much things have changed in that regard. We meet a character in this play who is willing to commit heinous crimes for the sake of religion, and he justifies it to himself by saying that, because he has taken confession and been absolved, it’s not a sin. This is the thinking of a suicide bomber.

“I think the point Schiller is making is that it is human to become intolerant – and even to take a force for good, like religion, and twist it. It’s not that you doubt the belief of the people who believe; you just doubt the aims of the people who are telling them who their enemies are and what to do.”

Both Mary Stuart (which also features Ben Carlson, Brian Dennehy and Geraint Wyn Davies in its cast) and Measure for Measure depict people failing to live up to their own ideals, says Mr. Cimolino, “not just because they’re sinners but also because, in their rigorous pursuit of the ends prescribed in the Bible, in their zealousness, they’re fuelled by everything but true love. True love means being able to give completely of yourself for the other, to hazard all for the other, to be able to put yourself aside. And in each of these plays, people can’t put themselves aside.

“That’s one reason I programmed them together at the Tom Patterson Theatre. I feel that they’re perfect complements to each other.” 

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