There are parallels to be found in Shakespeare plays with events in the modern world – sometimes that’s simply because things like love and romance are pretty much universal. But this production of Measure For Measure goes further than that, in considering where the balance of power lies within both the criminal justice system and apparent corruption in politics. To begin with, there’s a speeded-up version of what I suppose could be called a conventional production (even though rattling through five acts in well under ninety minutes is hardly conventional), complete with period costumes, and very little in the way of set and props. It offered nothing new, although at the performance I attended, there was a sharp intake of breath from large sections of the audience when Isabella (Hayley Atwell) has sexual relations demanded of her. ‘Demanded’ being the operative word, it is perhaps indicative of the enduring impact of the demand, whether this is the first time someone has seen ‘Measure’, or the fiftieth.
But, the Bard has her refuse to yield, as ever, so why should this not be the case in 2018, even when, as happens in this production after the interval, in a contemporary setting complete with staff lanyards, mobile phones and business suits, Duke Vincentio (Nicholas Burns) goes off on a diplomatic mission or other and leaves Isabella in charge instead of Angelo (Jack Lowden). So then – spoiler alert – Angelo is the brother of the condemned Claudio (Sule Rimi), providing a different dynamic to the sibling relationship.
I struggled to come up for the right phrase to sum up the first half, and am grateful to a fellow audience member at the interval who said he felt it was “very heavy”. There was also a sense of it going through the motions, and I wonder if it would have been better to have merely done a one-act version of the play entirely set in contemporary times instead of making audiences sit through more or less the same dialogue twice.
The dynamics between Atwell’s Isabella and Lowden’s Angelo, particularly in the second half, are absorbing to witness, and theirs are the stand-out performances in the show. There’s a moment when video evidence is used against Isabella, followed by an (arguably) missed opportunity to explore the modern phenomenon of ‘revenge porn’. And that’s the problem with resetting a centuries-old play in the here and now – at some point, aside from the thee-ing and thou-ing, something is bound to be implausible. (My favourite is Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, where handguns were taken out in response to an invitation to draw swords.)
The play does well, however, to navigate certain aspects of the narrative whilst remaining faithful to the Shakespeare text. It strangely fits, for example, that a modern-day Angelo wouldn’t indulge in bedroom activity: millennials are, apparently, less sexually active than Generation X and the Baby Boomers were at their age. It’s the sort of production that can’t win: if it indulged in artistic license a bit more, one might then conclude that a new play addressing #MeToo and #TimesUp should have been written instead. This adaptation is a bold one: in placing Isabella in a position of power, director Josie Rourke also makes her the antagonist. Make of that what you will.
To misquote the beautiful game, at the end of the day, it’s a play of two halves. What I take away from it is that power can corrupt a person, irrespective of gender or even which century we’re in. An intriguing, if imperfect, production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Vienna is corrupt. The Duke, who has let the city fall to vice, hands control to his Deputy, a hardline, puritan reformer.
The Deputy uses ancient laws to sentence citizens to death for sexual misconduct. But when a religious Novice pleads for clemency, their heady encounter leaves the Deputy guilty of the very crime that the law condemns.
Artistic Director Josie Rourke’s production of Measure for Measure imagines the play in its original year of performance, 1604, and also in 2018. Cast includes Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden. Within every performance, Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden will alternate the roles of the powerful Deputy and the powerless Novice.
The cast includes Ben Allen, Matt Bardock, Nicholas Burns, Jackie Clune, Rachel Denning, Molly Harris, Adam McNamara, Raad Rawi, Sule Rimi, Anwar Russell and Helena Wilson.
28 September 2018 – 24 November 2018
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
by William Shakespeare