Donmar Warehouse, London ***
Review by Carole Woddis of performance seen Oct 13, 2018:
There’s every reason why Josie Rourke should have chosen Measure for Measure to direct in her final season as the Donmar’s artistic director.
Anyone with half an ear to public events in the arena of gender relations and abuse of power in the past two years would recognise its extraordinary pertinence.
Lines shoot out that could have been new minted just a few months ago. `To whom should I complain? says Isabella after Angelo, the Duke’s deputy offers to commute the life of her brother in exchange for her renunciation of her chastity.
And on protesting that she will make his profane offer public, Angelo’s reply, surely hand written by scribes at the recent Supreme Court hearings in Washington answers:
`Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life, My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state, Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report. And smell of calumny.’
Goodness gracious. Every accused male in high office must have mouthed these words many times over. And Rourke, ever alive during her tenure at the Donmar to current day political and social currents, makes sure in her production these words carry their full weight particularly with Jack Lowden’s marvellously cool Scottish Presbyterian abuser who delivers them with all the confidence of the highly privileged.
Lowden’s is one of the high points in production that, however, takes some curious turns on the way to dealing with the play’s other theme – redemption and the role of the Duke.
Always equivocal, is he God incarnate, reclaiming justice and bringing corruption to light? Or a meddling, over-controlling, slightly malevolent, not to say devious manipulator, side-stepping the unpleasant role of retribution and passing it on to a deputy.
In Rourke’s production, Nicholas Burns’ Duke ends up copying Angelo’s attempt at coercive sex with Isabella by flinging himself at Jack Lowden’s Angelo who, in this re-aligned, flip-coined production, becomes the recoiling victim.
Hayley Atwell’s modern day Isabella – in the first part looking like a renegade from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – has now become a smart, high-heeled lawyer aggressor.
It’s a daring reversal but one that, in truth, for all its reframing, actually loses impact by repetition. Lines that resonate so strongly in the male-female equation tend in the second half to be less effective partly to do with hearing the lines for a second time but also partly because Lowden’s stage presence is simply more charismatic than Atwell.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely in whatever hands they tend to be, female or male.
So Rourke’s reappraisal should stand on its own merit. The fact that it fails to do so also has to do with the cuts imposed. Whilst in the first half, her edited version exerts a magnetic hold, in the second half, rather, it gives the impression of just riding rough-shod over large swathes of the play.
There is still much to admire. In its casting, this Measure for Measure wittily reflects our contemporary sensibilities in all its mobile phone, racial and physical guises. Jackie Clune’s female Pompey, Rachel Denning’s Mistress Overdone and Sule Rimi’s Claudio are cases in point as are the trans-gender bawds who line the backstage even if they have hardly more to do than `dress’ the stage.
Certainly Rourke’s production does bring out – as if, strangely, a rebuttal to the #MeToo Movement – the sad fact that essentially the (patriarchal) system remains the same. The Duke’s imposition of marriage on Angelo to Mariana (the young woman to whom he was formally promised) and here, of Isabella to a young man, Frederick, are both miscarriages, in a sense, cruelly unjust solutions. And continuing…
So there is no redemption here and Shakespeare’s `unromantic comedy’ becomes, initially speedy but an increasingly unfunny echo of today’s sexual and social injustices.
Good though to see the next generation of acting talent steadily making ground.
Lowden who made such an impression in Richard Eyre’s award-winning Ghosts (2014) as Oswald to Lesley Manville’s Mrs Alving follows it up here with a performance as intelligent as it is mercurial.
The other one to watch, in my book, is Helena Wilson, making her third Donmar appearance after last year’s Lady From the Sea, and this year’s The Prime of Jean Brodie. Here, she brings another delicately drawn, heartfelt touch to the comparatively small part of Mariana, Angelo’s wronged lover. Actually, I would love to have seen her play Isabella. Surely, leading roles await her. I hope so.
Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare
Duke Vincentio: Nicholas Burns
Escalus: Raad Rawi
Angelo: Jack Lowden
Thomas: Anwar Russell
Mistress Overdone: Rachel Denning
Lucio: Matt Burdock
Pompey: Jackie Clune
Claudio: Sule Rimi
Provost: Adam McNamara
Isabella: Hayley Atwell
Francisca: Molly Harris
Mariana/Justice: Helena Wilson
Frederick/Justice: Ben Allen
Director: Josie Rourke
Designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Sound Designer: Emma Laxton
Composer: Michael Bruce
Casting: Alastair Coomer CDG
Costume Supervisor: Mary Charlton
Hair, Wigs and Make-Up: Carole Hancock
Voice and Dialect Coach: Zabarjad Salam
Resident Assistant Director: Tom Bellerby
First perf of this production of Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, Sept 28, 2018. Runs to Nov 24, 2018.
Review published on this site, Oct 14, 2018