Like Shakespeare on drugs: Measure for Measure at Valletta’s Splendid

Now gearing up for a venue change after an unexpectedly successful three-play run of the Bard’s comedies at The Pub, theatre director Philip Leone-Ganado speaks to MaltaToday ahead of WhatsTheirNames Theatre’s staging of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Splendid in Strait Street

The Measure for Measure cast, from left: Joe Azzopardi, Jonathan Dunn, Nathan Brimmer, Sandie von Brockdorff, Michela Farrugia and Joseph Zammit
The Measure for Measure cast, from left: Joe Azzopardi, Jonathan Dunn, Nathan Brimmer, Sandie von Brockdorff, Michela Farrugia and Joseph Zammit

First of all, could you talk a little bit about the history of WhatsTheirNames’ Shakespeare productions so far? What was the animating force behind them, and are you looking forward to the slight formula shake-up that appears to be in the offing with your upcoming production of Measure for Measure?

I’d like to pretend there was some overarching goal behind everything, but the truth is we first decided to put a Shakespeare on at The Pub [in Archbishop Street, Valletta] because we had the venue and it sounded like fun. We honestly didn’t think anybody would actually show up. Evidently it was fun not just for us but for our audience, and it all built on itself from there.

What we discovered along the way was that there was an appetite for unpretentious, stripped-down Shakespeare that focuses above all on engaging the audience and having fun together. It’s always been so important to me to break down the fear that tends to surround Shakespeare, so the number of people who said it was their first time watching one of his plays, or the first time they really understood it, has been the most gratifying part.

With Measure for Measure we have this really exciting chance to play with a bunch of new ideas and see how they work with what we’ve already discovered, but the core of what we’re doing remains the same.

Joseph Zammit
Joseph Zammit

The production also marks your first departure away from Shakespeare’s comedies, as well as heralding a venue change – away from The Pub in Archbishop Street and to the Splendid in Strait Street. What prompted these shifts, and how do you hope to make the best of them?

The Pub was an incredible venue, but after three shows that followed a broadly similar formula, it felt like we were exhausting its possibilities. I think our audience would have happily come back for more, but we’ve never wanted to stick to what works just because it works.

There was also a practical aspect: we’ve sold out and had long waiting lists every year, so the slightly larger space at The Splendid hopefully means more people can get tickets.

The Splendid has the same intimacy we got so much at The Pub, and like The Pub it brings its own character to the story we’re telling. So the choice of venue and play kind of went hand in hand: if a pub was a natural place for comedy, a decaying brothel seems like the right sort of place to explore a play steeped in sex and corruption.

We definitely want to explore what the new venue has to offer: when I first described the concept to our cast, one actor described it as “Shakespeare at the Pub on drugs”, and I haven’t yet been able to come up with anything better.

Sandie von Brockdorff
Sandie von Brockdorff

Without losing the stripped-down feel of our earlier shows, this year we have the chance to play slightly more with set and lighting and with music and dance (this year we’ve brought in a dedicated musician and a burlesque dancer alongside our actors).
I want this to feel like the natural evolution to what we’ve been doing for the past three years.

The mood at The Pub was jolly and raucous... both the chosen play and the venue promise a slightly darker turn. What can audiences expect from the show, in terms of the overall tone? Will you be retaining a casual approach, or will it be a more restrained affair?

Measure for Measure is a very dark play, there’s no getting round that. It’s also as current as you could hope for: this is a play that hinges on a sexual assault, reading and watching it in the height of #MeToo movement, it’s hard not to see the parallels in powerful men abusing their status.

But it’s also about the repression of our human instincts, about the conflict between our strict moral codes and our baser drives. And at the same time, it’s also – in parts – very, very funny.

It’s clearly not a play that can or should be as laugh-a-minute as Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing, but I genuinely don’t think it will feel that far removed. We mined the moments of darkness in those plays, and we’re mining the comedy in this.

Joseph Zammit, Jonathan Dunn (top) and Sandie von Brockdorff
Joseph Zammit, Jonathan Dunn (top) and Sandie von Brockdorff

We’re not going to suddenly restrain ourselves and go all ‘serious Shakespearean actors’ because the subject matter is more serious. All the elements that made The Pub feel casual and accessible – the intimacy, the audience involvement, the pace and energy – are still going to be there, but we’re applying them to different material.

Though you’re wisely drip-feeding information on the play at the time of writing, the cast appears to be made up of both WhatsTheirNames regulars, with some newcomers thrown in. What was your process when choosing the ‘new players’, and what do you hope each of them will bring to the show?

With a cast of six playing multiple roles, it’s always been really important to us to find actors who understand the nature of what we’re doing and who can form a good team over what’s usually a quite chaotic rehearsal period.

Michela Farrugia
Michela Farrugia

So this year, apart from our mainstays Joseph Zammit and Nathan Brimmer, we’re really excited to be bringing in Joe Azzopardi, who appeared in our first two shows and is now fresh off his feature film success in The Boat, and two hugely exciting young actresses in Sandie Von Brockdorff and Michela Farrugia. And in the monumental part of Duke Vincentio we have Jonathan Dunn, who in a couple of years has established himself as one of the best performers on the scene.

We’re also quite chuffed to be featuring burlesque dancer Undine La Verve, because Shakespeare in Malta has been woefully lacking in burlesque so far, and our pianist Marie-Elena Farrugia.

All the performers have brought an energy and inventiveness to the process that I’m really looking forward to sharing with audiences.

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