Measure for Measure | Theatre Review

Measure for Measure at the Donmar

Measure for Measure | Theatre Review

So AGES ago I booked tickets to see Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare at the Donmar Warehouse. In a serendipitous moment, I managed to book it on the one year anniversary of the #MeToo movement. The perfect day to see this play.

The Story

Measure for Measure is one of William Shakespeare’s comedies and his ‘problem plays’. It is about a sister begging for her brother’s reprieve from execution and facing a moral dilemma regarding sex.

Isabelle, the sister – played by Hayley Atwell – is a nun. She comes to Vienna to beg Angelo, the recently substituted lord of the land – as the actual lord The Duke is hiding as a Friar within Vienna to see how justice is taken from the people’s perspective – for her brother’s life. Angelo is played by Jack Lowden.

Angelo is a dick. Well, he’s a ‘law-abiding, over-the-top justice, dictator’ who condemns Isabella’s brother, Claudio, to death because he got his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock. This was not a crime readily punished when the Duke was in power – the man would just marry the woman, which is Claudio’s wish anyway – but Angelo is so strict he declares Claudio should die.

Isabelle comes to Angelo to beg him for her brother’s life. Her words overpower his senses in such a way that he is willing to give up his sanctimonious stance and offers her Claudio’s release, but only if she sleeps with him.

You can see the conundrum and the links to #MeToo. Once again Shakespeare – although not exactly a great role model for equality – is ahead of his time.

My Review

This review will have spoilers because it needs to, to explain the power that Josie Rourke’s (the director) adaptation has worked so well.

First off, you watch the play twice in one show.

The first half is the original play by Shakespeare – with alterations to make it shorter – set in Shakespearean times. The second half is the same play but with the roles reversed – so Isabelle is the dick and Angelo is the desperate brother of Claudio – and it is set in modern times.

The reason you see the play twice is that by the end of the show you will see two different perspectives and you, as the viewer, have to judge your own perspective.

When Isabelle is blackmailed by Angelo for sex, do we judge that scene differently to when Angelo, a man, is blackmailed by Isabelle, a woman, for sex?

It is all about power play and gender.

There is a particular scene between Angelo and Isabelle when one or the other ‘in gross terms’ suggests that they have sex for the release of Claudio.

When Angelo suggests this to Isabelle, he approaches her and she weeps as though she is about to be raped. It’s horrifying and the scene turned my stomach. When Isabelle does the same to Angelo – who in modern times is not a nun but a recovering drug addict – the tension and the fear of Angelo is sickening. He doesn’t weep like Isabelle, but freezes, shakes and plucks an elastic band around his wrist.

The reason these two scenes were the most powerful in the whole production is that of the different reactions you see, and the reactions you expect. You expect Isabelle to weep and be afraid, and she is. But with Angelo, I naturally expected him to fight back and become physical rather than shrink into himself. Not because of the play (I forgot I was watching a play at this point) but because I’ve never seen a man so afraid of a woman.

That’s the intensity and the thought-provoking magic of this production, and why it is so important.

Is this really a comedy?

The weakness of Shakespeare is that we only have three categories in which to put his plays: Historical, Tragedy and Comedy.

Measure for Measure really doesn’t seem to fit in any of these. It has comedic moments – but then so does Romeo & Juliet – but it doesn’t have a happy ending either. So it’s more like a tragedy than a comedy.

When the Duke returns, after meddling as a Friar and tricking everyone into a completely different scenario to what they expect, he, like Angelo, asks Isabelle for something in return: her hand in marriage.

If this was truly a comedy we would have seen a flowering love between the Friar and Isabelle throughout the play – as we do in Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night – but we don’t.

Isabelle is dedicated to God. She is determined to be chaste her entire life. She won’t even save her brother’s life by giving up her virginity. Yet the Duke doesn’t care once he’s saved Claudio’s life. He wants Isabelle’s hand in marriage in return. Measure for Measure, an eye for an eye.

The original play, by Shakespeare, ends in silence and you never know what Isabelle’s response is. But in this adaptation, Isabelle screams. Gutturally, furiously, frustratedly screams. The scene then changes to the modern version where we see the same thing happen again, but this time to Angelo.

The Duke is ‘not that way inclined’, he says at one point, and he even kisses Angelo as the Friar (which he did not do with Isabelle, instead he embraced her warmly). This time the Duke claims Angelo to be his, tempting him with drugs (he’s trying to stop his drug addiction like Isabelle is trying to stay a virgin). It gives the play even more perspective as it adds homosexuality, manipulation and addiction to the mix.

The Cast

The cast of were stellar.

Hayley Atwell as Isabelle was particularly powerful. Her rendition of Isabelle as a nun and then an all-powerful female judge were rapturous. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her, she commanded her roles. Her comedic timing was perfect – better than some in the play – and her emotions were beautifully portrayed.

Measure for Measure Cast

Jack Lowden, who played Angelo, was stronger as the modern day victim version of Angelo than as the menacing, controlling version of Angelo. But his acting in the second half was intensely gripping and he got that character (Isabelle’s, technically) a lot more than Angelo the evil. I could have watched him all day at that point

Honorary mentions go to Nicholas Burns who played the Duke – he made me love him and hate him in equal measure – and Adam McNamara as Provost – I really felt for him and thought his character and portrayal was the noblest of the whole play.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this is probably the most important play I’ll see this year.

As much as I enjoyed the first half of the play and found it gripping and enjoyable to watch, I think the messages would have been clear and more intense if they had focused entirely on the second half. If some of the characters had been more developed it would have been a groundbreaking adaptation for simply showing an underrepresented version of events.

Whilst I understand why they showed the first half, it’s seemingly sensible to not just show a man’s victimisation during the #MeToo movement when the movement is predominantly about the treatment of women. We must remember that a lot of the #MeToo movement is about the treatment of men as well.

That is why having this play of two perspectives of a man and female’s victimisation is so incredibly important and so powerful.

If you can get tickets to see Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse, do it. Get your tickets now. 

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