18 October 2018 (released)
22 October 2018
With its central themes of sexual coercion and the abuse of power, Measure for Measure doesn’t need an update to resonate with a contemporary audience. But director Josie Rourke has taken the radical decision to push the exploration of gender politics further by setting up two complete versions of the play against each other, one either side of the interval.
The first version in period costume, runs at a slightly abbreviated hour and a half, the second, in modern dress, is reduced to an hour with the roles of Angelo and Isabella switched so that Isabella is invested with the Dukes power as he leaves Vienna and Angelo comes to her, pleading for his brother’s life. ‘I would to heaven I had your potency/ and you were Isabel! Should it then be thus?’ Rourke’s production takes this question and runs with it.
The moment of transition is pure theatre, yet there is a clever psychological realism to the leap, emerging as it does in response to the Duke’s forceful proposal of marriage. On realising she can never be free of this patriarchy, Hayley Atwell plays Isabella fuelled with such rage that is appears to propel her into the future where she re- emerges as the cold, corrupt ‘Angelo’ character, now dressed in sexy office wear, surrounded by people texting.
The power of this switch could not be maintained across the second half despite throwing up some revealing truths about gender and power. When Angelo threatens to tell the world about her sexual coercion, Atwell says ‘Who would believe you?’ and mimes crying as if she would use her vulnerability to imply his guilt rather than hers. Something a man could never have done. But of course we still live in a patriarchy so changing the individual with power to a woman in many ways does not completely reverse the roles. Jack Lowden as Angelo, now being coerced into sex by powerful Isabel, snaps an elastic band on his wrist as if to remind himself not to break his vows of chastity – he doesn’t appear genuinely threatened. Which of course lowers the stakes. And Atwell’s ‘Angelo’ never quite seemed like one ‘whose urine is congealed ice’. It was a wise decision to cut the second version and introduce more comic elements as the proved itself to be less powerful in this ‘new’ form.
Although at times, both halves of the production felt like Shakespeare on speed, the verse was spoken with ease and clarity and performances were vivid and engaging across the board. It was a bold experiment from Josie Rourke as she comes to the end of her tenure as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse.