You couldn’t do a version of Measure for Measure in today’s climate and not proffer some form of social commentary with it. Supposedly a comedy, the morally tortuous plot, which explores the abuse of power and female objectification, renders it one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ owing to that consequently confounding classification.
So in the #MeToo era, it is a pertinent choice for Josie Rourke, whose production at the Donmar Warehouse has just been extended into December owing to popular demand. And the theatre’s artistic director doesn’t just provide one thought-provoking account, but two. As well as being a canny move, this delivers astonishing value for money since you get to see double turns from Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden, each Olivier-nominated actors making their Donmar debuts, who alternate in the lead roles during every performance. It is a ploy that could favour style over substance, but thanks to its fearsomely sensitive handling and thoughtful performances the result is to amplify and add to the questions in hand; Rourke’s is an important voice in the debates surrounding women and power that continue in the real world.
In a wood-paneled set that serves unnervingly well as both a church and prison, the first scene is Vienna, 1604, where lawlessness and vice preside. The duke decides that he cannot be the one to restore order, instead handing over to his notoriously stringent deputy, Angelo. A stickler for the absolute rule of law, one of Angelo’s verdicts sentences a man named Claudio to death for fornication. But when he is entreated to show some mercy by Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice shortly to be taking her vows, he is so swayed by his lust for her that he tries to make a bargain: if Isabella will sleep with Angelo, Angelo will pardon Claudio. Hence, the very sin for which he condemns one man to death is the one that he would have Isabella commit in order to save that life, his galling hypocrisy only facilitated by a power that has temporarily been bestowed upon him. Lowden is suitably icy and hard-nosed as Angelo, even managing to make a top-knot seem menacing as the despotic new leader, and he makes a plausible stab at portraying whatever internal struggles cause Angelo to react as he does to Isabella.
For her part, Atwell is the most laudably measured (interestingly, no pun intended) Isabella I have ever encountered. It is easy to default into histrionics with Isabella, to maintain a loud outrage as the various men insist on using her as a chess piece to be pushed about the board in their ridiculous games. But Isabella is complicated, too, because it is without a doubt her seductive language of ‘whips’ and ‘stripping’ that unhinges Angelo during her plea; is she aware of the more sensual interpretations of those metaphors? And if she is, what is she hoping to achieve by using them? It is a strange tactic for anyone to employ in the face of a man who professes to be so disgusted by sexual proclivity, let alone by someone about to become a nun. Atwell is calmly spoken and pensive as Isabella. When she learns of Claudio’s fate, when she speaks to Angelo, when she processes the dreadful ultimatum she is given, one feels her despair all the more because of the quiet turmoil that we see her endure. We get the feeling that Isabella is far cleverer than any of those around her, so that when she so eloquently seduces Angelo, it may not be unwittingly done, but the words are certainly spoken with reticence – this is a necessary evil to try to make the unfeeling man in front of her have some sort of human response to her plight. Her restrained used of volume also means that when Atwell does erupt, it is far more affecting.
With cases such as that involving Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Ford so fresh in the mind, it will turn your stomach to see Isabella goaded into testifying against Angelo, only to be publicly derided. And so we come to the key questions that Rourke clearly wants to ask: would a man be treated with the same scorn? Would a woman ever do what Angelo did? And would we judge her in the same way if so? Is the corruption of power a male folly, or down to human fallibility more generally? Suddenly, the duke is a modern politician in a shiny suit, absconding from the people and handing over his bright red lanyard to his deputy, Isabella. You may wonder if you have the emotional stamina to watch any more but curiosity takes over and you’ll head back from the interval agog.
Now, the coldness considered as moral strength in Angelo is a mark of frigidity in Isabella; the doubts muttered nervously under the breath about Angelo’s decisions are voiced loudly to Isabella when she makes the same ones. You won’t be surprised by the suggestion that a woman’s authority is regarded differently to a man’s, but you opinions will be challenged when you come to question whether we would be as outraged by Isabella’s proposition to Angelo as vice versa. This is the same abuse of power, but do we tend to value a woman’s virginity more greatly than a man’s? And so your mind will roll on, and on – the beauty of Rourke’s production is this ability to make you think.
Not forgetting that this is, officially, a comedy, there are both wry and raucous moments punctuating the tension. Nicholas Burns and Matt Bardock provide fabulous support as the duke and Lucio, respectively, with Rachel Denning and Jackie Clune making the bawdy most of their turns as Mistress Overdone and Pompey (their contemporary transformations so astute as to border on genius). You shouldn’t just go to see this play because it raises important points, but because it is poignantly acted and benefits stunningly well from the intimate nature of the miniscule theatre, where you feel as if you are privy to private conversations and the actors can genuinely catch your eye as they speak. If only certain world leaders would buy a ticket.
Measure for Measure at Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX extended until 1 December 2018. For more information and tickets please call the Box Office on 020 3282 3808 or visit the website.