Now the Donmar Warehouse's Josie Rourke goes beyond the performative gender switching to explore the relationship between sex and power in a boldy re-imagined Measure for Measure.
Rising stars Hayley Atwell (Howards End, BBC) and Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) switch roles with each other in every show, alternating between the domineering Deputy and the desperate Novice.
Puritanical, domineering Angelo is promoted and put in charge of the city, using his authority to sentence citizens to death for sexual misconduct. But when pious young Isabella begs for mercy, the encounter reveals that Angelo is as impure as those he condemns. And he is willing to use his position of power to manipulate and exploit.
Shakespeare's story of a corrupt Vienna is reworked to become a play of two parts: first we see the trappings and traditions of 1604, the year Measure for Measure was first performed; then the same play is repeated to reflect corporate corruption in 2018.
Jack Lowden, Angelo, and Hayley Atwell, Isabella in Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Even when played out in blank verse with ruffs and tights, Shakespeare’s depiction of victim-shaming and intimidation feels horribly prescient in the wake of the Brett Kavanugh trial as we watch powerful public figure use his position to intimidate.
Then, at the end of the first half, tear-stained trembling Isabella sheds her nun’s habit to become The Boss. The transition from oppressed to oppressor is thrilling.
But on a practical level, in order to explore the power struggle from both points of view, the play itself has to be cut down to fit into an hour. And then you have to watch the same play all over again in the second half.
Swapping parts gives Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell a chance to inhabit both sides of the power struggle. Lowden’s Angelo is a strutting Scotsman with an insidious sense of his own dominance. Then, in the second half he’s a softly spoken recovering addict, striving for godliness and overlooked by society. In Isabella, Atwell makes the young nun’s repulsion and fear feel palpable, until all the frustration explodes in a scream. Everything shifts in 2018 Isabella, who slips from flirtatious to forceful in the blink of an eye.
There are sobering differences, as power struggle gains new resonance in the reversed gender repetitions. It’s particularly interesting when an illicit sex tape adds to the shaming scene as domineering Isabella is exposed.
But, by the end of two hours and forty minutes, these moments of discord are not quite enough to distract you from the fatigue of watching the same play twice in succession.
The concept and motivations behind this dual production are enlightening and all too relevant, but that doesn’t quite translate into a fascinating piece of theatre. It’s the kind of thing that sounds great on paper and sparks conversation – but falters a bit when you have to sit through it.
|What||Measure for Measure, Donmar Warehouse review|
|Where||Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London, WC2H 9LX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
28 Sep 18 – 24 Nov 18, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£10 - £40|
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|