Josie O’Rourke’s adaptation of Measure for Measure, probably Shakespeare’s most famous so-called problem play, is frankly unnerving and infuriating – especially if you are a woman. I can see her reasons for the dramaturgical choices she made but I left the auditorium really angry, though I think for all the right reasons. The production asks some really important questions about early modern and contemporary perception of predatory sexual behaviour and wielding authority – a very topical theme since the global Weinstein scandal and the recent local revelations of the disgraceful conduct by the British MPs.
Shakespeare’s text is mercilessly cut to its bare bones to accommodate the production’s framing device: showing the central (and very unsavoury) relationship between Isabella and Angelo twice: first from the early modern and then from today’s perspective. What is quite shocking about it is that Isabella gets to play the victim and the villain – something which is very difficult to accept and feels manipulative, even perverse.
It is hard to imagine a more innocent and betrayed female character in the Shakespearean canon than Isabella. She is almost raped, made to think her brother was executed, persuaded to save her abuser and then forced to marry a man she barely knows in a play that appears to end like a comedy (several couples are reunited and wed while all the bad things that happened are supposed to be forgotten). In O’Rourke’s adaptation, Isabella is taken advantage of in the first version of the play and utterly humiliated in the second. There is no happy ending, of any sort.
The minimal stage design by Peter McKintosh suits the extremely cut version of the play and both timelines rather well. There is only a small wooden bench in front of the first row of seats and a long bench running the entire length of the back wall (the wall itself is a grid that looks sometimes like prison bars, sometimes lights up in the colours of a rainbow). A modern chandelier in the shape of a cross hangs over the stage reminding us of the Catholic context of the play set in Vienna.
Hayley Atwell is a fascinating Isabella, although more so in the modern guise as a near abuser of Angelo when she gets authority that Angelo enjoys in the early modern version of the play. And here lies the crux of the problematic modern reading that O’Rourke offers. While the early modern version in Renaissance costumes feels almost anachronistic, the modern take on the play is urgent and relevant. It forces the audience to see that if a woman in power today dares to abuse it, she will be severely punished and much more than any man will. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Angelo is merely forced to marry a woman that he was supposed to marry in the first place; what is more, she has forgiven him and never stopped loving him. O’Rourke’s Isabella, now in Angelo’s place, is exposed in the public eye with revenge porn and her ex-does not marry her out of love but to make her life a misery. O’Rourke shows that whether then or now women end up powerless and whatever they do their actions are always under more scrutiny.
There is a lot of good ensemble acting in the production but Atwell as Isabella and Jack Lowden as Angelo standout. It is also worth mentioning Nicholas Burns as the Duke but only in his contemporary guise when he is an in-the-closet modern gay leader who reveals his love to Angelo in a slightly uneasy resolution at the end of the play.
So, should you see a play if it may make you angry? Yes, of course. I am pretty sure that you will not enjoy this production but you are not supposed and that is why it matters and why you must see it.
- By Wiliam Shakespeare
- Director: Josie O’Rourke
- Cast includes: Hayley Atwell, Jack Lowden, Nicholas Burns, Sule Rimi, Matt Bardock, Adam McNamara, Jackie Clune, Rachel Denning
- Donmar Warehouse, London
- Until 01 December 2018
- Time: Evenings Mon-Sat: 7.30pm Matinees Thu and Sat: 2.30pm