This post is in praise of actors, about a moment in Measure for Measure which I saw at the RSC in Stratford at the weekend.
Pompey, the ‘bawd’ or brothel-keeper, is a classic Shakespearian comic, and about two-thirds of the way through, locked up in the city jail, he has a speech which looks like Jacobean babble on the page:
I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here’s young Master Rash; he’s in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, ninescore and seventeen pounds; of which he made five marks, ready money: marry, then ginger was not much in request, for the old women were all dead.
Then is there here one Master Caper, at the suit of Master Three-pile the mercer, for some four suits of peach-coloured satin, which now peaches him a beggar. Then have we here young Dizy, and young Master Deep-vow, and Master Copperspur, and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drop-heir that killed lusty Pudding, and Master Forthlight the tilter, and brave Master Shooty the great traveller, and wild Half-can that stabbed Pots, and, I think, forty more; all great doers in our trade, and are now ‘for the Lord’s sake.’
On stage, in the Shakespearian-style Swan Theatre, it comes alive, as Pompey, played by Joseph Kloska, uses the audience as the characters, picking them out as he goes through the names and improvising, but just a little, as he goes.
My son happened to be wearing a check shirt, sitting in the front row, and Kloska adapted the line about Master Caper and his “suits of peach-coloured satin” to fit, riding the laughter to add, “You have to work with what you’ve got”. A few lines later he got more laughter by picking out a balding man a few seats along as “Drop-heir”, adding a line to say, “It’s all in the Folios, First Folio, Second Folio”.
It felt as close to the way in which the Shakespearian audience would have experienced a comic actor as is possible for a 21st audience to get.
One other note on the play: one of things you learn when you learn about screen writing is “to love your minor characters”. Shakespeare was there first. The murderer Barnardine is hardly on stage – he only has a couple of scenes – but he steals them both. And it’s all in the writing.
The picture at the top of the post is a production still from the RSC, and is used with thanks.