Did critics get the measure of Measure for Measure?
Josie Rourke's production premiered at Donmar Warehouse last night
Alex Wood, WhatsOnStage
"How do you solve a problem play like Shakespeare's Measure for Measure? In Josie Rourke's production (her penultimate as artistic director at Donmar Warehouse), it means going bold and radical; taking the inherent issues in the piece and thrusting them into a modern spotlight."
"The piece starts conventionally enough – set on Peter McKintosh's bare stage with a looming illuminated cross overhead, Shakespeare's plot rumbles on at a hasty pace (Rourke condensing the full plot into a spritely single act) with the cast in period dress."
"Then the roles switch: Isabella is now an iPhone-touting Viennese deputy in a secular world and Angelo is the wronged party seeking to save his brother. The play restarts, the dialogue remains intact (Isabella taking on Angelo's lines), but with different parties in different positions."
"The malleability of Shakespeare's text is as fascinating as ever and, in Rourke's hands, this Measure for Measure makes for an enthralling few hours of theatre. It is, as can be expected, timely – a woman fruitlessly defending herself publicly in front of a national assembly feels intensely pertinent."
Natasha Tripney, The Stage
"It's a really slick production, handsomely designed by Peter McKintosh and well acted, but the first run-though of the play, whittled down to its essentials, is more satisfying than the attempt to update it. Though thought-provoking it seems confused in what it wants to say about women, power and justice – but then things are confusing at the moment."
"The production simply does not have space to unpack the newly complicated nature of the relationship between Nicholas Burns as the incognito Duke and Lowden's now vulnerable Angelo, nor the implications of the revenge porn to which Isabella is subject. Then there's Jackie Clune, playing Pompey as a comedy eastern European madam – a stereotype theatre really needs to ditch."
Alice Saville, Time Out
"I'm not really sure what Rourke's saying about gender politics, unless it's the top-level point that women can never win: in the first part, Atwell plays a woman forced into marriage, in the second, she's humiliated and punished for trying to exploit her power. But the show's relentlessly light tone glosses over any real pain. It's also not a radical enough rewrite to deal with all the labyrinthine complexities that updating and gender-swapping a 1604 take on sexual morality throws up: presumably accidentally, it ends up making the second act's gay pairing look sinister.
"Still, if this Measure for Measure falls short, it's hard to truly dislike a production with so much ambition and energy and will to remake a four-century-old play. It turns what could be a nerdy or cerebral exercise into something that feels playful, even if its bold outlines need some shading in."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard
"Jack Lowden is Angelo, who deputises when Vienna's all-knowing Duke (Nicholas Burns) suddenly absents himself. Wielding his new status with merciless rigidity, he proposes to pardon Claudio in return for Isabella's virginity. When he asserts that her word stands little chance of trumping his, he calls to mind the recent scorching controversy around Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford."
"The decision to switch the leads isn't merely a flashy gimmick. Yet for the play to be presented in this way, it needs to be severely truncated, and this skimps on the original's humour, as well as its supporting characters and scenes of exacting argument. Rourke's interpretation raises unsettling questions about power and gender, but it's too on-the-nose to feel truly subversive."
Michael Billington, The Guardian
"The truly shocking moment comes after Isabella has threatened to expose Angelo's offer to save her brother if she will sleep with him. "Who will believe thee, Isabel?" cries Angelo, in a line that could be heard anywhere in the world today where men exercise unchecked power."
"What if the roles were reversed? That is the question posed in the second half, when Atwell's Isabella is in government and Lowden's Angelo is her prey. The problem is that the situation doesn't make much sense. Rather than being a young Catholic priest, as would have been entirely believable, Lowden's Angelo is seen as part of a mysterious religious cult that improbably imposes a vow of chastity. Since Isabella's orgasmic cries are recorded on the iPhone of the guy who takes Angelo's place in her bed, you also start to wonder how she remained blithely unaware of his identity.
"Rourke's argument presumably is that power corrupts, irrespective of gender. You see that in the figure of Nicholas Burns's Duke who, in both versions, emerges less as a divine substitute than as a shabby fixer driven by covert lust."
Paul Taylor, The Independent
"Hayley Atwell brings remarkable argumentative fervour and force of will to the role of Isabella, the novice nun who is told she can save her condemned brother's life if she sleeps with the corrupt new Deputy, Angelo. In the latter part, Jack Lowden is first-rate – an intellectually austere Scot and hard-line Puritan who flusters and fidgets with the unfamiliar sensation of lust when confronted by this fellow temperamental absolutist."
"The second half becomes, to my mind, embroiled in implausibilities. The production scores several firsts, though. I have never before seen a "bed-trick" authenticated by the smartphone recording of a yelping orgasm. The modernisation is a bit facile — Jackie Clune's depraved Pompey delivers her lines about "groping for trouts in a peculiar river" in a jokey Russian accent and there's a chorus of sex-workers who barely look up from their assorted screens."