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Review: Measure for Measure (Donmar Warehouse)

Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke oversees a new production of Shakespeare's classic, set in 1604 and the present day

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Nicholas Burns and Hayley Atwell in Measure for Measure
© Manuel Harlan

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.

Hayley Atwell plays the staunch, defiant sister Isabella, pleading with Viennese deputy and acting leader Angelo (Jack Lowden) to save her brother Claudio (Sule Rimi) from execution for his infidelity. Angelo gives Isabella an ultimatum: sleep with him and sin, and her brother will go free. If not he dies. Isabella in turn plots with an undercover Duke Vincentio (Nicholas Burns as Angelo's senior, feigning absence from duty to investigate his deputy's policies from a point of anonymity), disguised as a priest, who dupes Angelo into sleeping with Mariana (Helena Wilson). Mariana is bedded by Angelo, Angelo is forced by Vincentio to marry Mariana and Claudio goes free. Fait accompli.

That is, until, Vincentio states that Isabella is now to marry him. Rather than give in at this point, Atwell breaks, screaming in Burns' face. The sheer frustration of Isabella's position and her lack of agency boils over. The piece de-materialises, lights flicker, costumes are cast aside. And then all of a sudden it's 2018. 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.

Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell in Measure for Measure
© Manuel Harlan

What Rourke's production becomes is a brisk, uncompromising meditation on the nature of power and law, and how gender is intertwined with them. As leader rather than novice, Isabella faces eye rolls, mockery and shame from her male peers. When in the end she is married off by Vincentio, it feels yet again like she is traded and bartered by men holding all the cards. Even Shakespeare's "bed-trick", cooked up by three men in fraternal solidarity, becomes a humiliating act of non-consensual sex.

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.

It's not easy going, and the show is defined more by its overarching and frequently knotty thesis than by its characterisation or plotting. That's not to say there aren't some stellar performances (with most of the cast having to take on two roles), especially from Lowden who creates two thoroughly different versions of Angelo, and Atwell whose neutral expression is capable of carrying unwavering anger.

Because what Rourke settles on in her deft, two-act, two-period exploration of power is that there's no real solution to these problem plays, only thornier and thornier questions that can stir and provoke. Sometimes, all that those who have no power can do is scream. Bring on her final production.