A CurtainUp London Review
Measure for Measure
Do not forget to buy a theatre programme which has interesting articles on the role of judges and the law, and of the danger of exceptions in terms of unfairness to others. "I show (pity) most of all when I show justice/For then I pity those I do not know." Is said by Angelo in reply to Isabella's plea for pity.
We are firmly in the theatre vogue of gender switching characters in well known plays — we have had Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Michelle Terry as a female Henry V, a female Hamlet, a male Rosalind, and most recently and, in my opinion most successfully, in Company Sondheim's male lead Bobby has become a woman. But Josie Rourke wears her gender switch with a difference. She plays Measure for Measure twice — once in early 17th century costume, an abridged version of the original with Hayley Atwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo . . . secondly, and even shorter, in modern dress where Isabella and Atwell becomes the Duke's deputy and Angelo and Lowden, a born again Christian.
Whilst the lawyers may enjoy upholding the law, one cannot turn a blind eye to the hypocrisy of Angelo in applying the morality laws whilst at the same time being guilty of lechery and sexual harassment. What an excellent play is Measure for Measure to produce now in view of the sexual opportunism scandals of those in authority in the entertainment industry!
It makes so much sense to play both versions alongside each other so the audience can compare and contrast in the same performance with the resulting interaction and resonance. We appreciate the patrimony of the 17th century, the absolute power of men in Angelo's seduction, the Duke (Nicholas Burns)'s arbitrary rule and even Isabella's brother Claudio wanting her to sacrifice herself for his sake. While watching the first Measure for Measure as Angelo is so confident that he will be believed rather than Isabella, I thought about a notorious BBC children's entertainer, Jimmy Saville who used his celebrity and his charitable work to silence the child and young women victims of his rapes and sexual abuse. The arguments about who will be believed are the same. The power balance identical.
When introduced to Mariana (Helena Wilson) who has been discarded as fiancée by Angelo we see her about to self harm by cutting her thigh, visual evidence of the harm done to her self esteem by Angelo. So it is a problem that the outcome for Mariana is marriage to this man and when the Duke proposes to Isabella that she should marry him, in this production, a whirlwind is instigated by her reaction, the lights go out and the modern day transformation is an indelible coup de théatre.
In the 21st century version, Isabella keeps her name but is appointed as the Duke's deputy and Angelo becomes a Christian and reformed addict. Maybe it would make more sense for Isabella to be persuading him to take drugs, rather than to give up his body to her lustful desires. This act of the play made me think about a scene on a London train the week before. A woman in her late fifties was so drunk and sexually explicit to a young man that, after she got off the train, he reminded us that no man would have been able to behave like that to a woman and only be laughed at. It is still indicative of differences between the sexes how we behave.
Hayley Atwell's softly spoken Isabella, the legal enforcer seemed to my hearing less menacing than her male counterpart. The Duke seemed more reflective. The argument about Angelo's chastity didn't seem to make as much sense to me in the 21st century but this is probably a measure of my own inbuilt sexism!
There is much to think about in Josie Rourke's penultimate production as Artistic Director at the Donmar in a meaningful gender swap production which doesn't feel gimmicky or artificially contrived. Rourke will be missed.
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Measure for Measure
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Josie Rourke
Starring: Hayley Atwell, Nicholas Burns, Jack Lowden, Sule Rimi, Helena Wilson
With: Raad Rawi, Anwar Russell, Rachel Denning, Matt Bardock, Jackie Clune, Adam McNamara, Molly Harris, Ben Allen
Design: Peter McKintosh
Sound Design: Emma Laxton
Composer: Michael Bruce
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Running time: Two Hours 40 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 3282 3808
Booking to 1st December 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 18th October 2018 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden/Leicester Square)
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