As Josie Rourke enters her final months as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, schemes like Barclays Front Row and now Klaxon offering low-priced tickets to often sold-out shows, along with a focus on female-led theatre will be her legacy. Fitting then that part of her directorial swansong should be an inspired and experimental take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In a year of revelations about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, the timing couldn’t be better for this intriguing tale of blackmail, morality and duty.
Gender-blind casting has becoming fairly standard in recent years, at the most basic level giving female actors the chance to play some of drama’s greatest roles, while also offering alternative perspectives on familiar scenarios. But one thing you never see is the same character simultaneously from the male and female perspective, so while a female Henry V might be intriguing, audiences cannot compare this instantly with an equivalent male performance and must wait until some other production comes along. Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure changes all that.
On the same night, either side of the interval, the roles of Angelo and Isabella are shared by Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, while the production also divides its time between the early seventeenth century and 2018. There were various possibilities for this approach – the actors could play the roles on alternate nights as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did with Frankenstein, or the swap could simply happen half way through the play. Instead, O’Rourke plumps for the most unusual option, slashing the text to a core 90 minutes and playing it through twice, that is exactly the same text once with Lowden as Angelo and Atwell as Isabella, and after the interval, playing it all again with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines (but called Isabella) and Lowden performing as Isabella (but called Angelo). It’s a risky strategy with a show that ultimate clocks in at around three hours, but it’s a daring endeavour that is richly rewarding.
The Duke of Vienna decides to take a holiday and leave his reluctant friend Angelo in charge, making him the city’s leading judge. A pure and moral region, Claudio is accused of fornication and the sober Angelo sentences him to death. Encouraged to plead for his life, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, duly visits Angelo who is instantly captivated by her, offering to spare her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Forced to choose between her body and her soul, can Angelo’s terrible power be bested?
The easy abuse of power and how it changes people’s behaviour is a core theme for Shakespeare, throwing the individual’s moral code into flux. Most often for murderous or greedy ends, characters pursue power to alter their own status, to win a higher position in government as happens in Hamlet and Macbeth or to jealously disrupt the purer life of someone else as in Othello. In Measure for Measure, power is wielded purely for sexual purposes, Angelo’s conquest of Isabella won’t later affect the materiality of his circumstances in any way, he propositions her as a temporary distraction, more an exercise in ego than a strategy for higher gain – themes that will resonant strongly with the events of the last year.
All of this comes across really strongly in the first half of the Donmar’s production, largely divested of its subplots, the audience is asked to focus sharply on the central theme of moral and bodily corruption in a show that asks big questions about trading one for the other. But Rourke ensures it’s not an open and shut case, she wants us to consider the opposing positions of Angelo and Isabella, to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation and to think about the ways in which morality has changed in 400 years. Is Isabella a paragon, a saintly figure to be admired, or is her refusal to succumb to Angelo’s desires, and thereby assure her brother’s death, a cruel and stubborn act?
In this first section, the sympathies deliberately sway. Jack Lowden’s Angelo is an interesting proposition, a man seemingly driven by right and duty, applying the law as it stands but without compassion or clemency. His first encounter with Isabella clearly ignites a rapid and unexpected passion that he is unused to experiencing, and Lowden makes us believe he genuinely falls for her – it appears to mean far more to him than just having the upper hand.
But Lowden never lets us forget that how Angelo translates that emotion is monstrous, however genuine his feeling for Isabella, the scene in which he makes his intentions clear is deeply uncomfortable. As he looms in on her, riven with lust, she comprehends his purpose exactly, and Atwell is superb in relaying the powerlessness and fear that Isabella feels in that moment, frozen and shaking with tears that becomes a striking reminder that Angelo’s unrequited love for her can never excuse his invasive manipulation of her body and mind.
As the story is resolved the production flashes forward to 2018 and replays the first scene again, this time with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines but named as Isabella. After the interval, the play resumes from the condemnation of Claudio, and Atwell’s approach is slightly different to Lowden’s – although both are equally valid and fascinating creations. She makes the character more beguiling, more openly lustful and confident, while no less deceptively calculating. This Isabella has greater self-assurance than the equivalent Angelo in Act One, who seemed a cold man remote from the world and almost awoken by his passion. Instead, Atwell plays her as a sharp-minded woman seizing on a tasty opportunity that suddenly presents itself, worldly and entitled.
Her scenes with Lowden now are quite different, without the physical height and strength to overcome him, she manoeuvres him into position and waits to pounce. Openly admiring him, Atwell has a way of tilting her head to peer at Angelo (reading as Isabella), emphasising her social if not muscular dominance over him. Instead of the devout virgin of 1604, Lowden gives us a former bad boy who has found redemption at a Christian retreat and Isabella’s pursuit of him tests his resolve – although, it is more awkward than uncomfortable to watch him extricate himself from the proposition scene, perhaps because he seems more acquainted with the world and better able to handle himself than the trapped young woman of the original.
It may seem a chore to watch the same show through twice and you do need a bit of resolve to stick with it, but the outcome is worth the investment. There are two very interesting things happening in this finely honed and balanced production; first one way to read the approach is that the Isabella and Angelo of the second half are the direct consequence of the Isabella and Angelo of the first. Forget the fact they swap lines and imagine what actually happened to the characters at the end of Shakespeare’s original play, who did they become in the future?
Here Rourke asks us to consider, that although Isabella was young, innocent and seemingly incorruptible in terms of her chastity, did having the power of life and death over another man (even for the right reasons) ultimately corrupt her? Did close exposure to that male world of politics and power create a future scenario in which the one-time victim becomes the perpetrator? Atwell certainly hints that the fiery certainty of Isabella in Act One could be the same woman in Act Two only older and more experienced. Her righteousness after the interval seems to suggest the dying embers of an original morality now corrupted by authority.
Likewise, it is entirely conceivable that the dastardly Angelo has spent the intervening years seeking atonement for his sins, arriving at the retreat as a form of therapy to correct his poor behaviour. Like Atwell, Lowden makes this interpretation entirely credible drawing on his portrait of initial sobriety as Act One Angelo to inform and make sense of his Act Two desire to seek religious penance for his earlier behaviour. His reaction to Isabella’s proposition is then deepened by the idea that he now understands the damaging effect of his original behaviour, hence the determination not to succumb. So the question really becomes – are Angelo and Isabella essentially two sides of the same coin, an eternal loop of corruption and reclamation?
Secondly, are we also being asked to question our own judgement about the differences between the two scenarios? Morally they are inexcusably the same, a more powerful individual manipulating a weaker one is unquestionably wrong, but watching it, the production is also testing our own conscience and whether we feel that a gender-swapped twenty-first century Isabella propositioning Angelo is less troubling that the seventeenth-century original. Does society still innately believe that a woman, lacking in physical strength, cannot cajole a man into sex in the same way? Part of that is in the equivalent performances in which Lowden’s cold Angelo is more repellent than Atwell’s slightly coquettish and personable Isabella, but this Measure for Measure asks tough questions – are we really as liberal as we’d like to think? Using power to manipulate another person should be the same regardless of gender but it is intriguing how the alternative perspective of the second half plays with our prejudices on this issue.
Cynically, a double dose of Measure for Measure shouldn’t work, but this re-gendered combination is a gamble that pays off, sending you home with plenty to think about for days afterwards. Peter McKintosh’s simple set, combined with Howard Harrison’s interesting lighting design easily evokes two eras, allowing the power of the lower-lit traditional section to speak for itself uncluttered by scenery, while adding a livelier feel for 2018. The overall concept adds some knowing touches to the modern era with conversations transposed to phone calls and the local prostitutes given an Eastern European background.
Among the supporting cast, Nicholas Burns adds a creepy touch as the helpful undercover Duke with an agenda of his own. His pursuit of Isabella is as disturbing as Angelo’s showing that predators may come disguised as white knights, while Burns becomes more physical in his attempt to seduce Angelo in 2018 which contrasts well with Isabella’s more implicit approach. Matt Bardock is equally notable as the rascally Lucio, while Sule Rimi gives the imprisoned Claudio plenty of injured resentment at his sister / brother’s refusal to help.
As Josie Rourke steps down from the Donmar, this show is one to remember for all the right reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two terrific performers in Atwell and Lowden each giving two absorbing performances, it is an evening that opens your eyes to how differently Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted and how changing gender can give theatre an added political power.
Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. Tickets are sold-out but extra seats will available via Klaxon every Monday and day seats at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.