I’ll be blunt: I nearly didn’t go to see Measure for Measure, Josie Rourke’s penultimate show before leaving the Donmar. I was tired and didn’t really fancy a three-hour Shakespeare. But I forced myself into the auditorium, and it was a good thing I did, because this was one of the most fascinating, daring, thought-provoking Shakespeares I’ve seen.
Rourke presents here two cut-down versions of the play, one set in its original year of performance in 1604, one in the modern day. Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden, as Isabella and Angelo, alternate the roles of victim and predator in the two complimentary yet contrasting productions.
“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” In the modern age of #MeToo, and particularly given Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s recent revelations about would-be senator Brett Kavanaugh, Measure for Measure has never seemed so timely or modern. It explores the balance of power, its corrupting force, and it’s differing impact on men and women.
In the first play, following the more traditional route, Hayley Atwell is the novice who pleads with strict stand-in ruler Angelo for her brother’s life (Claudio has been condemned to death for fornication). He refuses, unless she agrees to give up her chastity to him. Thanks to a plot hatched by the watching Duke (a confident Nicholas Burns in both versions), Angelo’s former betrothed sleeps with him in Isabella’s stead, and Angelo is eventually brought to justice. The Duke, who has been observing all along, pulling strings behind the scenes like a master of manipulation, decides to claim Isabella as his own, at which point she lets out a glorious, angry scream.
The set goes dark; when the metaphorical curtain lifts a few minutes later the stage and its actors are transformed. They wear modern dress, and Atwell plays the official to whom the Duke is handing over power. Interestingly, Lowden and Atwell still play ‘Angelo’ and ‘Isabella’, each taking on the other character’s lines. It is as if this version of the play is a natural successor to the previous one, as though Isabella, angry at her treatment, wants to turn the tables on her accuser.
After the interval, the play runs through once again, and it’s fascinating to see how performances – and the audience’s reaction – change. Where Angelo in the first play seemed to rejoice in his new power, Isabella in this one seems surprised, nervous, almost reluctant – you get the sense that she has worked hard to get where she is and lacks the natural confidence possessed by the men surrounding her. Her abuse of power is just as reprehensible and her attempted seduction of Angelo (here a born-again Christian) just as wrong, but her punishment at the end of the play is far greater. In the first play Angelo was humbled; here Isabella is humiliated, as her night-time encounter with her former fiance in the guise of Angelo is replayed as a video forwarded to everyone in the room. In both plays, she is a woman in a man’s world; little wonder then that in the final scene, transformed back into Elizabethan costume, she resigns herself to the Duke’s will.
Naturally, the focus is on Atwell and Lowden, who are both excellent, but a number of the supporting characters are worth a mention. Sule Rimi as Claudio is a sheepish prisoner in the first play, but swaggers rebelliously in the second, unable to understand why his brother won’t just sleep with Isabella and save his life. Matt Bardock plays a memorable Lucio in both plays, while Adam McNamara is a constant, increasingly frustrated presence as the Provost. Peter McKintosh’s simple set works well as both a backdrop for the earlier setting, and a contemporary frame for the modern-day stage.
The more I think about this production – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I saw it – the more I admire and respect it. It has been extended to 1 December, and I definitely recommend trying to grab a ticket.