Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Measure for Measure

Donmar Warehouse, 22nd November 2018

BOGOF. An inelegant retail term, Buy one get one free. Which is exactly what you get here. Two stripped-down, straight to the point versions of Will’s 1604 riff on justice, told as mirror images with gender reversal. 

So much gender swapping in Shakespeare, whilst interesting, and occasionally illuminating fails to serve a real purpose. So many shouty attempts to point up how “relevant” Shakespeare is to today come over as heavy-handed or desperate. Of course Will is for now, for “all time” because he understood and could illuminate human nature, our psychology whether as individuals or in a  social context, which is the same now as it was in Jacobean times. However there are undeniably times when Will’s punctilious gender politics radar flies a little off course. So some gentle coaxing, some redirection, is needed to change the point of attack.

And this is what Josie Rourke has done in this production. Problem play? Not here. Whilst not everything at the Donmar has come off during her stewardship of the Donmar alongside Executive Producer Kate Pakenham, the productions she has directed (notably St Joan, The Vote, Privacy, Coriolanus, The Weir and Berenice) have all be outstanding IMHO. The Donmar legacy is substantial and IMHO the last few seasons have always been interesting, with some palpable gems, the houses packed and, I am guessing, audiences broadening. Remember where JR and KP took over they were the first women to run a major London theatre. Fortunately now they are not quite alone.

Anyway she has a way with Shakespeare and is unafraid of making bold decisions to shed new light on the works. Now MFM, like its near companion the Merchant of Venice, is intended to be comic in form but deals with serious moral and ethical issues, as the title, drawn from you know who in the new Testament, implies. The slipperiness of justice and mercy are highlighted through abuses of power, in the context of a decadent and troubled society. But, as usual WS doesn’t offer up a simple morality play. He draws on the internal conflicts within the main characters to cover all the bases. Usual story, with no ambiguity, no grey areas, no “tragicomedy”, no complexity, there is a risk of no drama, just a lesson. Even saying this MFM, along with All’s Well That Ends Well and, for somewhat different reasons, Troilus and Cressida is a tricky customer. From classical comedy to medieval Romance to Renaissance satire, and any number of combinations in between, these are fascinating plays.

Angelo, not his ostensible boss, Escalus, is left by the Duke of Vienna to enforce the laws of the corrupted, morally lax state. When the novice nun Isabella comes to plead for mercy on behalf of her brother Claudio, condemned to die for the sin of pre-marital fornication, (which incidentally the 18 year old Will S and the 26 year old Anne Hathaway “committed” pre wedding), he tries to seduce her by trading Claudio’s life for her body. She refuses and threatens to unmask him. Angelo sneers that no-one will believe her. The Duke meanwhile, disguised as a Friar, after telling Claudio he has to accept his tragic fate, then comes up with the classic Renaissance comedy bed switch to trick Angelo into sleeping with his abandoned fiancee Mariana (it was very, very dark in those days) thinking she is Isabella. 

This is the point where verse turns to prose, the Friar unmasks as the Duke, Angelo turns up the treachery dial, and dubious plot manipulation leads to the not actually dead Claudio (there has been a comedy “head” switch to explain this) reunited with Isabella, Angelo forced into marrying Mariana (and the comic lead Lucio to a prostitute, just to ram home the point) and the Duke “proposing” to Isabella. So “tragedy” is averted but far from a comic ending.

So the formal justice of the state is contrasted with the concept of natural justice, the morality and ethics of the individual with that of society and the Church, and lustful and venal behaviour gets its comeuppance, or doesn’t. 

Now it would seem that the Jacobean mind was a bit more up for this lurching from comic to tragic, from deep and dark to light and fluffy, to allow the playwright (here, as the Duke, in the form of an on-stage agent) to push his characters where he (rarely she) will regardless of credibility, cogency or tone. We seem to be less flexible nowadays. Complexity and ambivalence are OK but moral uncertainty is unsettling. The setting for MFM, almost exclusively “indoors”, with dungeons, palaces, courts and chambers also lends any humour a darker, sourer edge than the knockabout and wordplay outdoors in some of the more obviously comic plays. 

Which I think is why productions of MFM, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale and Timon of Athens which, whilst being careful not to completely jettison the tonal unevenness and behavioural uncertainties of the texts, offer up a firm(ish) contemporary ethical framework. You need to know where you are so you can then work out where you aren’t as it were, whilst still enjoying all the usual Shakespeare stuff, language, plot twists, rapid scene changes, rule-breaking, bonkers settings (here we are Vienna but everyone has an Italian name reflecting WS’s source, a 1578 play by George Whetstone called Promos and Cassandra). 

So this means Angelo’s blackmail, Venice’s anti-semitism, Leontes’s jealously, the greed, corruption and misanthropy of Timon and “friends” all need to be drawn out and signalled before being muddied. 

Anyway enough of the amateur criticism. What Josie Rourke has done is get to the heart of the male domination which underpins MFM through a, as it turns out, not so simple reversal. So take one, in “period” dress, sees Hayley Attwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo in a speeded up, but largely complete, run through and the Duke, Nicholas Burns, as her nemesis at the close. Take two, it’s now 2018 and we are in modern dress, phones brandished, sees the switch of Isabella and Angelo’s lines, so with pronoun and other minor deft changes, we now see Angelo, as a member of some unspecified radical church organisation, as the chaste “victim” and Isabella as the predator. Except that it doesn’t quite pan out that way. 

As Isabella, Hayley Attwell is resolute and defiant convincing us that her principles trump her desire to save her brother’s life but also her yielding to a pragmatic way out. We are in no doubt though of the predatory bargain that the sententious hypocrite Angelo tries to strike (and its obvious parallels for the MeToo generation). And, when the manipulative Duke traps Isabella at the end with his marriage “proposal” she lets out an anguished howl and screams into his face (and, by implication, the face of every bloke through history). Cue dissolve. Part two. Now the blunt and unfeeling enabler of the law, Hayley Atwell is equally as convincing as she soliloquises about her lust for Angelo. Admittedly the mechanics of her move on Angelo and his rejection now stretch credulity a little but it still intrigues. However the most powerful moments come as it becomes clear that even now Isabella is the victim of the men around her, as she is mocked and shamed by them, tricked into bed with (now male ex) Frederick (Ben Allen), and them married off by a gloating Duke, who in turn now lusts after and entraps Angelo. 

Now you might think that this conceptual trickery might prove to be hard going. You would be wrong. The story moves along at a hell of a lick, both times, with minor characters excised, “head” and crowd scenes thinned out and Mariana downplayed. Peter McKintosh bare stage doesn’t get in the way of the message. Ms Atwell, who frankly I could watch for several hours just wrapping Xmas presents, is matched by Jack Lowden. Sule Rimi, as he has been in a number of recent productions I have seen, is also hypnotic as Claudio (especially in his cyclical rejection of the Duke/Friar’s pep talk ahead of his impending death second time around), and the comic interventions of Matt Bardock as Lucio, Jackie Clune as a now female, Russian inflected Pompey and Rachel Denning as Miss Overdone are delicious. 

This was Josie Rourke’s penultimate production at the DW. This theatre’s loss will be film’s gain. Which reminds me. I must see her Mary, Queen of Scots with Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan

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