Truth is truth, and power is power. In her new staging of Measure for Measure at the Donmar, in which Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden alternate their roles, director Josie Rourke sets to out to show that some things are universal.
During an evening’s performance, the stage – which is dominated by a backdrop of bars, recalling the literal and metaphorical imprisonment of the play’s characters – is both 17th century Vienna and modern day London. We first meet the characters in 1604, the year of the play’s first performance. Isabella (Atwell), a young nun pleads with Angelo (Lowden), the recently promoted judge, for clemency on behalf of her brother who has been sentenced to death for sexual misconduct. Angelo, who has a reputation of being an austere and pious man, agrees, but only if Isabella yields her virginity in exchange. At first her saviour appears to be the Duke (Nicholas Burns), who has promoted Angelo in order to test him. When the Duke, disguised as a monk, witnesses Angelo’s abuses of power go unchecked, he is determined to thwart him using any means possible.
The character of the Duke is seen to be something of a divine intervention in most performances of Measure for Measure, but here Rourke turns the character on its head. We come to realise, that far from being altruistic, the Duke only helps Isabella in order to ingratiate himself with her and ultimately to hold his power over her. Having helped Isabella indict Angelo in open court, he propositions her. Realizing that she is once again trapped, her answer is a howl of desperation and anguish.
The stunned theatre is pitched into darkness; when the stage lights flash on again, Isabella has been reinvented as a deputy prosecutor in the modern day who is to be promoted. The story is retold, with the roles of Angelo and Isabella reversed; cloisters become courtrooms, and the chains of office are metamorphosed into red lanyards carrying the key cards of power. Now it is Isabella – renamed Isabel – who has the upper hand and Angelo, a young Christian, finds himself as her victim.
What this second half role reversal is meant to highlight is a bit of a mystery. In some respects Rourke seems to be saying men too can be victims of sexual assault, and that power corrupts irrespective of gender, though it could be read as Isabella’s revenge fantasy – her “measure for measure”. I considered the former more likely as I watched the play unfold, but in hindsight the latter has seemed more plausible.
In either case, there is no getting away from the fact that after the intermission, the play is more than a little muddled. In the period staging, the narrative is taut and incisive. “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” counters Angelo in one scene when Isabella threatens to expose him. Present day headlines echo in those words. With #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein and the Kavanaugh hearings so fresh in the public consciousness, the performance feels very timely. When left to draw our own modern parallels from the period setting, there is far greater clarity of intent than when the narrative is transposed to the present day.
The modern retelling goes some way in highlighting the plight of male survivors of sexual assault. It’s a subject that needs tackling, a fact made abundantly clear by the audience’s laughter at the scenes in which Angelo struggles to tell his brother that he cannot give in to Isabella’s demands to save his brother’s life (the reaction to the same scene when it was Isabella who was being exploited was not so dismissive). Yet the staging does not go far enough – Angelo the novice is never put in the same position of powerlessness as Isabella the novice; we never hear his howl of pain when realising that he has escaped the deputy only to be exploited by the Duke.
Similarly Isabel the deputy never commands the same power as Angelo in the same role. Her juniors mock her, her trial takes on a nasty misogynistic edge when a recording made without her permission of her having sex is uploaded to the internet to humiliate her. Rourke brings up interesting questions about female rage, revenge and what it is to be a woman in power, but does not give the themes enough space to develop.
Nevertheless, there is little fault to be found where the acting is concerned. Atwell is a commanding presence and even as the naive novice, holds sway over the stage. In both incarnations of Angelo, Lowden is splendid, his charm curdling into sleaziness in the first half, and cracking into vulnerability in the second.
Rourke’s staging is a complex, immersive retelling. Even with its missteps, it’s well worth a watch.