REVIEW: Measure for Measure (Donmar Warehouse) ★★★

Josie Rourke, the soon to depart Artistic Director at the Donmar, has taken an innovative approach to staging Shakespeare’s take on sex, power and corruption. Rather than decide whether to set the play in an historical or contemporary setting Rourke does both, with the first half set in medieval Vienna and then the second act a repeat of the first but in a modern setting. The other twist is that in the first half, as per Shakespeare’s design, Jack Lowden’s Angelo uses his power as a judge to exploit Hayley Atwell’s novice nun, Isabella, where as in the second half Isabella is the judge and Angelo the victim.

Both versions are reduced which makes on the original text with the number of characters and scenes cut down significantly. The upshot is to focus on the abuse of power, a pointed step in the era of #Metoo, with the line “Too whom shall I complain?” the key question. The issues at the core of this work feel so relevant they could have been discussed on the floor of the US Senate recently. The downside is much of the bawdy humour is removed making this a much more serious work than was intended.

The Duke, Vincentio (Nicholas Burns), decides to test whether a more doctrinaire approach to moral laws could be achieved in his city by pretending to leave Vienne and leave the austere judge Angelo in charge of enforcing the law. Disguised as a monk the Duke stays in the city incognito to watch events unfold. One of the first victims of the new authoritarian approach is Claudio (Sule Rimi) who is found guilty of fornication and sentenced to death. Claudio’s friend Lucio (Matt Bardock) agrees to ask Claudio’s sister, Isabella, to approach Angelo and ask for clemency on her brother’s behalf. Angelo is moved by Isabella’s entreaties but not in the way she hoped. Angelo presents her with a stark choice, give him her virginity and he will release her brother, refuse and the execution will go ahead.

Isabella refuses and warns her brother to expect death. This is overheard by the Duke, in disguise, who hatches a plot to fool Angelo and save Isabella’s honour. Mariana (Helena Wilson), a former love of Angelo is recruited to take Isabella’s place in bed with Angelo and then Mariana, Isabella and the Duke all confront Angelo in court. Even after Angelo is exposed Isabella’s ordeal is not over as the Duke goes on to exploit his power as well.

The two leads are excellent, although both seem more comfortable and believable in their roles in the first half before the power dynamic is switched. Atwell’s sensitive portrayal of Isabelle as the victim is both moving and powerful, in a way that can’t be repeated when Lowden delivers the same lines. Equally Lowden’s switch from austere judge to sexual predator is convincing but it is less believable when Atwell has to the same.

Matt Bardock has fun as the comic relief Lucio, his timing is always spot on, whilst Nicholas Burns is good value as the Duke, able to play the clown and the authoritarian equally well. Sule Rimi is solid as the unfortunate Claudio and the rest of the ensemble also provides good support.

The switch of settings presents a challenge to designer Peter McKintosh which he solves by stripping out the square stage. Except for some non-descript benches there is nothing on stage so the two eras are instead represented by changes in lighting by Howard Harrison and music by composer Michael Bruce. In the medieval setting the lighting is minimal and moody whilst the music is religious choral highlighting the central role of faith. In the second version of the play the music has a modern beat, includes rap and is lit with colour and vibrancy. Clever costuming and the use of mobile phones also contrast the two eras well.

This is a high-quality production with an excellent cast but the approach of delivering the play twice just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as just delivering it once, with the second half somewhat dragging things down. The huge relevance of the issues around abuse of power is slightly undermined by what feels like something of a gimmick.

Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Manuel Harlan

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