Measure for Measure review – sex, power and shock as Atwell and Lowden reverse roles

There are no half measures in Josie Rourke’s production of Shakespeare’s perennially topical play. In fact, we get the text, artfully cut, twice. In the first half we are supposedly in the Jacobean world of 1604, with Angelo exploiting the religious novice Isabella. After the interval, we view the same action from the perspective of 2018, with Isabella in power and Angelo now her sexual victim. The paradox is that the pertinence of the play to our own time emerges far more strongly when it is done in period.

Even if the focus is more on Viennese high-life than low-life, in the first half Rourke plausibly creates a hierarchical, religious world; one notices the detail by which Angelo is given temporary charge of the city in preference to his senior colleague, Escalus. But it is the confrontation of Isabella and Angelo that strikes home. Hayley Atwell as the novice is naively tactile and beats on the chest of Jack Lowden’s youthful Angelo in pleading for her brother’s life. 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.

Doomed … Sule Rimi as Claudio in Measure for Measure. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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. That’s a fair point, and it is intriguing to see how lines spoken in the first half take on a new meaning in the second: Sule Rimi’s doomed Claudio reacts to the Duke’s injunction to be resolved for death with due reverence in 1604 and a cynical laugh in 2018.

While the evening is ingenious and Atwell and Lowden give strong performances, the production suggests that you don’t need a double Measure to reinforce the text’s relevance.

At the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 24 November.

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