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Review - Measure for Measure starring Hayley Atwell at the Donmar Warehouse

Will Longman
Will Longman

This production of Measure for Measure was programmed six months ago, as outgoing artistic director Josie Rourke's penultimate production at the theatre. While it is a searing commentary about gender, morality and power - a #MeToo play -  the Brett Kavanaugh debacle over recent weeks elevate this production into something that couldn't feel more current.

Exploration of gender and Shakespeare's characters is nothing new, Rourke programmed the all-female Shakespeare Trilogy with the Donmar in 2016, but with this production of Measure for Measure, she directly contrasts and compares two of the central roles having Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden swap roles at the interval. We whip through the story with Lowden playing Angelo, a deputy bestowed with leadership of Vienna who sentences a man to death, bargaining that the will be released should his sister, Isabella, a nun-in-training played by Atwell, has sex with him.

The first act sees the play set in its original 1600s Vienna, but some lines resonate more than ever. Angelo's arrogant 'it's your word against mine' attitude is epitomised by the line "my false outweighs your true". His reputation will see him through, and if Isabella does try to out him, who would believe her when his reputation is unblemished? Some scenes were like sitting in a Supreme Court nomination hearing.

It's a well-paced first act, much of the play has been cut leaving only the bare necessities, which helps it feel fresh. As we reach the play's (first) conclusion, Atwell unleashes an almighty, blood-curdling scream in the face Angelo - a moment so intense, watching it is reason enough to see this play - and with a flashing light show by Howard Harrison, we transition to modern day Vienna. Doublets and trunks are swapped for suits and modern court dress; Michael Bruce's choral arrangements become sassy grime snippets; and everyone is glued to their phone. The first scene is replayed exactly as it was at the beginning of the play, but for the fact it is Atwell's Isabella now given control of Vienna.

Rourke replays key scenes from the play in the second half, with Isabella tempting Angelo, now the brother of Claudio and a member of a Christian institute. The roles have swapped, but the outcome still swings in favour of the man. It becomes clearer that tricking Isabella into having sex with Frederick but believing it is Angelo is rape; her realisation of this is painful, while Lowden's Angelo was rather confused and defeated. Though much of that pain stems from the fact a video of the act is circulated on Twitter...

By re-running the play, Rourke's direction has to be clear, full or foreshadowing and mirroring throughout. The blocking is almost identical, which lets you focus on the subtle differences, but they all build up to the same outcome: sex is used to the man's advantage.

Atwell and Lowden are great in both parts. Lowden plays Angelo with a stern Scottish demeanour, but brings him into the present as a casual individual. But Atwell's Isabella covers a huge spectrum, from her innocent purity to being and steely, scheming and unyielding in the present day.

At a time when we're in the midst of major changes in gender roles and power politics, this is a fascinating exploration into how we actually treat men, women and sex. And unfortunately, it couldn't be more relevant.

Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24th November.

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