September 30, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Measure for Measure @ The Donmar Warehouse
NB: this piece is based on a preview performance.
When Josie Rourke announced that she would be staging a radical revisioning of Measure for Measure that would involve the actors playing Angelo and Isabella switching roles halfway through, there was no way she could have known the context in which the first previews would be taking place. Seeing Measure for Measure in the aftermath of Christine Blasey Ford’s devastating and courageous testimony, Brett Kavanaugh’s angry lashing out at accusations of assault, and the US Senate Committee’s decision to effectively announce it didn’t believe or didn’t care about a woman’s trauma, was already difficult; seeing the play twice in immediate succession in the same evening almost impossible.
Rourke’s concept involved playing a heavily truncated version of the whole play in 90 minutes in renaissance dress, establishing a ‘straight’ reading of the text against which the modern-dress second half – in which Hayley Atwell’s Isabella became the deputy and Jack Lowden’s Angelo the brother of the doomed Claudio – could be measured as the whole play was performed again. The gender reversal of character as well as actor offered to speak both to the #metoo era and to the experience of women in the public eye. The question then becomes, is Measure for Measure – and the character of Angelo in particular – the right vehicle for this?
It really isn’t.
The second half ran into problems even before the interval, when in a flurry of neon lights and loud beats, the final tableau of the play was torn apart and Isabella undressed from her nun’s habit to reveal a briefcase carrying, power-dress wearing businesswoman, ready to take over as justice from Nicholas Burns’s Vincentio. As the lights went down on Atwell’s Isabella, excited to the point of licking her lips at the possibility of power, the production leaned into the worst dog-whistle right-wing fears of the ambitious woman. Throughout the second half, Atwell’s lone woman in the corridors of power was the subject of mutterings by groups of men clearly convinced she wasn’t up to the task (Adam McNamara as the Provost was outstanding in subtly distinguishing his quiet frustration with Deputy Angelo from his open scorn of Deputy Isabella) and questioning her orders; in response, she doubled down on the severity of her actions.
The problem was that the production wanted to have it both ways. On the one hand, it invited its audience to sympathise with a woman who was doubted and undermined from the moment she took office, and to understand her actions as at least partially determined by the men who set her up to fail. But this also equates to a production trying to find sympathy for the deputy, a position the production went partway towards doing in Atwell’s amusing lovestruck awkwardness as she prepared to meet Angelo for the second time. Finding sympathy for the deputy involved weakening the character’s standing and authority among the other lawmakers and trying to suggest that the abusive choices she imposed on her supplicant were in some way simply down to her trying to be taken seriously.
Yet Shakespeare’s Angelo struggles to lend himself to a sympathetic reading, meaning that the production couldn’t help but fall back into the problematic tropes of the manipulative woman in power. The production’s worst moment came during Atwell’s delivery of ‘who will believe you?’, when she showed how easily she could turn tears on and off in order to appear sympathetic in public. At any time, this is a hideous trope; in the immediate context of the accusations levelled at Professor Ford during and following her testimony, as well as all the other victims accused of ‘acting’ when speaking out about their trauma, the imputation seemed inexcusable to me. The production seemed to simultaneously want to excoriate and exonerate Deputy Isabella, and inevitably failed at both.
The production’s first half offered an efficient version of the text, though cut so heavily that some of the characters – notably Jackie Clune’s Pompey and Rachel Denning’s Mistress Overdone – were so briefly used that it wasn’t clear why they were retained at all. The plot was hugely simplified with the removal of Barnardine and much of the play’s debate and humour, focusing primarily on the interactions of the Duke, Isabella and Angelo. Burns was a fairly cheery Duke, even with less to do than usual, and signaled his interest in Isabella early when consoling her, giving himself a shake after letting her go. His proffer of marriage at the play’s end was met with her stony silence.
Lowden was a quietly spoken Scotsman as Deputy Angelo, rarely betraying emotion. His cornering of Atwell’s Isabella was one of the production’s ugliest (if at least justified in its ugliness) moments as he edged slowly towards her, towering over her as she sobbed, wordlessly demonstrating his power and her helplessness. Atwell’s Isabella-as-nun had her own power, especially in her postures of arms raised to heaven and her public resilience; the men of the play were captivated by her clarity of speech and force of will, even as they then acted to contain it. Helena Wilson gave excellent support here as an emotional Mariana, who with little stage time established effective emotional ties to both Angelo and Isabella that made her forceful insistence in the last scene that Isabella kneel with her all the more compelling.
In Part Two, the work was all much more uneven. The interactions were more complex, implying that this was the version of the play that had had the most work, and yet the interpretations felt forced. The modern setting in particular led to a lot of easy laughs, especially from Pompey (now with ‘comedy’ Russian accent) and Mistress Overdone taking selfies and filming all instances of potential aggression by the law, and the other characters barely looking up from their phones as they emailed and texted the court’s business.
In this version, Angelo (Claudio’s brother here) was a recovering addict who had joined a religious recovery group called Cloister, from which Lucio (who made much more sense in the modern version as a Saul Goodman-esque sleazy lawyer) recalled him. Now playing Angelo with an English accent, this beardy hipster charmed Deputy Isabella with his right-on moralising, his faux yoga techniques to calm them both, and his brazenly informal approaches to her. Taken in isolation, I found this take on the Isabella figure interesting, particularly as there was a sense that Angelo wanted to rejoin the world on impulse, but knew that would damage his recovery (and as he smoked a cigarette late in the play, there was a strong sense of his relapse). Atwell’s Deputy Isabella, however, came across as comical in her swooning for the young man, undermining her authority as judge. Her threats to him were hard to read from where I was, but it looked as though Angelo was attracted to her in return, leaning in as she moved close to him, but fighting himself. To me, the scene was emblematic of the production’s indecisiveness, neither doubling down on the sinisterness of what she was forcing on him nor being able to get away from the abusiveness of the situation.
Similarly fudged was the modern Duke, who fancied Angelo and who (even more so than with Isabella in the first half) was very handsy with the young man, even beginning to kiss Angelo as he consoled him, at which Angelo pushed him away. The Duke kept his intentions clear but yet again, instead of actually exploring the abusiveness of the hold that the Duke had over Angelo, the production went for cheap laughs, with Burns getting down on one knee and an extravagant proposal to the young man in the final scene. Yet it was this public outing of himself that turned the onstage parties universally against the Duke, in what was presumably meant to be their distaste for an abuse of power, but which came across to me at least as homophobia. And even more weirdly, as the play wound to its close, it became about the Duke rather than anyone else, with his sexuality and position the subject of everyone’s attention. Finally, Isabella began surreptitiously recording the Duke’s admissions as he outed himself, her sly smile confusing things yet further – was this an attempt at a feminist celebration of her ingeniously finding a way out of the situation into which the more powerful men had forced her? Or yet another misogynist image of the manipulative woman finding a way of sidestepping her own failings?
Rourke’s production bit off more than it could chew in trying to navigate between several different contemporary discourses around gender and sexuality in modern public life; and the glibness of its treatment only led to this being muddier and more upsetting. There was a lot of laughter in the audience, which jarred badly with what I was experiencing. And even before press night, it has already been overtaken by the real life performances that have brought home all too viscerally the ease with which women’s voices and experiences are dismissed. We don’t need a defence of Angelo or a portrayal of a manipulative woman faking distress when the media and politicians are already using this trope to undermine real women’s traumas and testimony. We don’t need this version – perhaps any version – of Measure for Measure now.