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FringeReview UK 2018

Measure for Measure

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Dark Comedy, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

Directed by Josie Rourke. Peter McKintosh’s set’s necessarily minimal. Howard Harrison’s lighting irradiates those like an x-ray Emma Laxton’s sound design more insistent where Michael Bruce’s music spans both periods, from songs offstage to an iPod shuffle.


Josie Rourke’s hit ingeniously on how to point up relevance in this unsettling problem play, so relevant in the light of #MeToo. 1604 and 2018, but not conflated in this absorbing Donmar revival.


Measure for Measure suggests doubling, and reciprocity: so what if we get exactly that? It’s not exactly half-measures: the play’s speed-read at seventy-five minutes each side of the interval, the second time slightly more telescoped. The second half’s 2018 version reverses roles for Hayley Atwell’s Isabella and Jack Lowden’s Scottish now English Angelo. It’s on the face of it ingenious. It would have been tame to run the second half merely in modern dress. But does it work? There’s a marvellous rota of differences, in characterisation and accent, that make this at the least a riveting double-take as four hundred years shifts relationships and smart answers.


Angelo’s offering to Isabella of brother Claudio’s life – condemned for fornication on a revived lapsed law – in return for fornication, is the nastiest bargain Shakespeare ever presented. The question remains why Duke Vincenzio, knowing Angelo’s flaws, decides to leave him in absolute charge of Vienna, knowing statutes he might enact while showing gaps in himself. To set himself off the more brightly? He dislikes criticism, and lets Angelo take the brunt of reviving laws.


Peter McKintosh’s set’s necessarily minimal in so intimate a space with centuries of scene changes: wooden-looking slats ascend as a backdrop with plain functional seating, alter plastic bucket seats for a religious cult interview. But later Howard Harrison’s lighting irradiates those like an x-ray and the natural look’s charged with zingy contemporaneity, Emma Laxton’s sound design more insistent here where Michael Bruce’s music spans both periods, from songs offstage to an iPod shuffle.


Rourke’s filleted carefully, though out goes much of the humour, and necessarily the skirling humanity of Barnadine who will ‘not be hanged for any man’s persuasion.’ So does jailor Abhorson. Pregnant betrothed Juliet, a tiny small role disappears for the same reason.


More curiously the Duke’s letting-off of Lucio whose ’other slanders I remit’ from whipping and hanging – after enforced marriage – is excised, which would merely take a beat. And Lucio’s cramped a bit too so ‘the old fantastical duke of dark corners’ is never asked to answer that one.


The Duke’s flaws are certainly worth exploring. Once seen as almost godlike he’s worryingly fallible: in plotting that nearly causes Claudio’s death, touchiness with Lucio’s genial criticism, sexual feelings towards Isabella as well as the sheer unpleasantness of leaving Angelo in charge, whom he knows duplicitous and forsworn in his dealings with Mariana.


And of course keeping Isabella ‘ignorant of her good’, believing her brother executed. Divining this will somehow break down Isabella’s own inhumane impulses means the Duke teeters between catharsis and cruelty. We get that side here, but less of soliloquies showing thoughtful grace and – humour.


Nicholas Burns however invests Duke Vincenzio with gravitas if a certain burly menace isn’t very far removed from that. This is a vigorous Vincenzio, with less of the gleeful delight in plotting that some show, more of a disturbing complacency in his divine right. No wonder James I approved.


In this production Angelo’s nominal senior Escalus (Raad Rawi’s granitic faithfulness mostly inscrutable) shows a flicker at his own supplanting. Though having him present in the Angelo/Isabella scenes strikes a false note.


Isabella too has had a reverse passage. Muriel Bradbrook’s sharp comment that Isabella’s calling – as an arrogant novice – for ‘more strict restraint’ is disturbing and ‘we begin to feel the nunnery is not ultimately the place for her.’ Recent productions leave her response to the Duke’s overtures teasingly ambivalent or incredulous. Here we get three, one from a reversed Angelo to a gay Duke, and two Isabella variants. None are of the comfortable kind and one reaction leads us straight into modernity after a brief blackout before the interval. Isabella’s conflicted sexuality isn’t a neat fit for sexual coercion though playing against the text is one option. Reversing roles so it’s a shocked 21st century Angelo is quite another thing.


Once roused by Matt Bardock’s ebullient Lucio to plead for her brother, condemned Atwell exudes naïve tactility – rather like the touchy-feely people at church bazaars – and a tremulous sense of finding herself sexually out of her depth especially deploying the royal ‘we’. ‘Then live Isabel, and Claudio die/More than our brother is our chastity.’ Her savage response to Claudio’s pleas for her to consider Angelo’s disgusting terms leaves her reeling with denial.


Sule Rimi’s Claudio is the repository of all change. Not of his situation, which seems suitably bizarre in the 21st century. But in his response to Burns’ disguised friar. Respectful in 1604 he’s orange suited and plays every submissive line for laughs in his orange-suited condemnation. Sometimes the even further cut second half allows a greater amplitude – Burns’ great speech ‘be absolute for death’ takes more time and Burns’ friar is paradoxically more respectful of the now scabrous Claudio than his earlier incarnation.


The under-used Helena Wilson as Mariana (though she’s also the Justice) acquits her tiny reduced role neatly though Anwar Russell’s Thomas as her 21st century counterpart, provides evidence by recording Isabella’s orgasmic moans as he as it were gives himself to her – would this really be obscured? Men are traditionally blind in bed tricks; I don’t believe women are.


The dynamic between Lowden’s blond-maned Christian-sect celibate with Atwell’s striking black-dressed Isabella is curious. One feels Atwell’s later Isabella might have shown greater cunning, and Lowden’s psychology is difficult to fathom, even sworn in some American silver-ring fashion. He’s not gay, as the Duke discovers when he tries it on – interestingly a more forthright assault than Atwell’s simmering proximity. Either way Atwell’s believable and acutely tuned to both roles. As is Burns – it’s difficult to see him as the same crumbling Calvinist as his sweet-toned avatar all organic milk and home counties honey freezes to Atwell’s plain intent.


Is Lowden here more Angelo than Angelo suffused with Isabella’s sexually repressed strictures? Crucially, his erotically seething conflict, unlike the earlier Isabella’s, isn’t explored here; it’s more paradoxical than ever but there isn’t time. The modern version’s full of mobile calls and a high-tech Isabella relies on but which as it were hangs her out to dry.


And the law condemning Claudio creaks absurdly. Still, the dynamic allows us to explore this reversal highlighting how men more easily abuse, and women’s sexual agency is given a new twist. In gender/power dispensations this poses fresh questions beyond the frame of this production.


Smaller parts still thrum and relieve – even though a sliver of Middleton’s textual additions survives the cuts. So Rachel Denning’s Mistress Overdone gets two cracks at justice, properly scornful in her later incarnation, as is Jackie Clune’s Pompey. Adam McNamara’s Provost cuts a sympathetic figure in both versions though more querulous and bemused the second time round. Molly Harris’ tiny role as the nun Francisca allows her ensemble parts though a brief one as Juliet might have made sense. Ben Allen’s Frederick and Justice has a bit less to do. Rourke’s snappy reduced ensemble though makes up for other gaps.


The finales though necessarily reduced are swiftly counterpointed by frantic ducal goings-on with the fun taken out bar a sparky Bardock sparring with Burns’ Duke and indeed in the latter version scoring clear points even when hauled off. Isabella’s 1604 reaction is something to see. But there are even more challenges for Rourke in the finale and she tries sidestepping the remorseless logic of her switch by not simply doubling but tripling things. Cop-out or inspired recognition of the crucial dynamics, perhaps unchanged after 400 years? Rourke clearly doesn’t feel a full reversed-role version would work on its own. One risk is naturally to render it in modern dress with original dynamic. Too predictable, possibly too disturbing. Though it lacks the great humanity and nemesis of the full work, this is the most thoughtful and thought-provoking recreation of a Shakespeare play this year.