This photograph shows Ciaran Madden playing Isabella in a radical adaptation of Measure for Measure by the American dramatist Charles Marowitz (1934–2014). It was staged in 1975 at the Open Space Theatre, which was founded by Marowitz and Thelma Holt in the basement of a disused old people’s home on Tottenham Court Road in London.

How did Marowitz alter Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure?

In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Claudio is sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. Angelo, the corrupt deputy of the Duke, offers to save Claudio’s life in exchange for his sister Isabella’s virginity, though he plans to execute Claudio anyway. The tragedy is neatly sidestepped when the Duke contrives two artful substitutions: Angelo’s jilted fiancée Mariana will take Isabella’s place in the sexual encounter, and another prisoner named Ragozine will be executed in Claudio’s place.

The Open Space Measure for Measure has no bed-trick to save Isabella from Angelo, and no lucky escape for Claudio. The head in this photograph is Claudio’s, not Ragozine’s.

The Marowitz Shakespeare

Measure for Measure is one of six ‘adaptations and collages’ collected in The Marowitz Shakespeare (London: Marion Boyars, 1978) – a book playfully dedicated to ‘the crank and the freak, the maverick and the loner’.

In the stage directions for this brutal scene, Isabella ‘stands mute and still’ while Angelo strips her naked, puts his ‘head in the pit of her stomach’ and lifts her behind the curtains (p. 215). When she emerges, she ‘stumbles’ into a desk which holds a ‘covered object’. ‘She trembles for a moment then whips away the cover revealing [the] severed head of Claudio. There is an ear-splitting scream’ (p. 216).

What was Marowitz’s aim?

In his introduction, Marowitz concedes that his Measure for Measure ‘is a betrayal, not only of Isabella’s character, but of [Shakespeare’s] intentions’ (p. 20):

I wanted the audience to be angry with the Duke, Escalus and Angelo in a way that Shakespeare’s narrative would never permit … It is an anger that I feel when I see the workings of society … The façade of the law, its elaborate stage-management, its imposing rituals, divert us from its manifest evil. As Measure for Measure is a play about ‘false seeming’ so is the practice of justice in most Western countries (p. 21).