Measure for Measure is all about the relationship between sex and power. It’s one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays in terms of the fate of its female protagonist. Chaste Isabella is intimidated, manipulated and subjugated throughout, before being suddenly married off to the dissembling Duke – not exactly a happy ending.
The idea behind Josie Rourke’s production is an intriguing one. She sets out to explore the stark power imbalance by abridging the original to around 70 minutes and performing it twice over, the first version set in 1604, the second in the present day.
In the first half, in which the characters wear period costumes, Isabella (Hayley Atwell) is the young novice who goes to Angelo (Jack Lowden) in a desperate attempt to save her brother’s life. He puts her in an impossible position – if she wants him to spare her brother, she needs to give herself to him.
When all this eventually comes before a court, the pressure is on her to prove her case, the men see no reason to believe her. The Duke’s final offer of marriage doesn’t offer salvation, merely the exchange of one punishment for another. It feels painfully timely, particularly in light of the Kavanaugh hearing and its aftermath: what will it take for women to be believed?
Atwell is a poised and eloquent Isabella. She powerfully conveys the awful way in which she is worn down. She ends up roaring in fear and frustration. Lowden’s turn as Angelo is similarly expressive and effectively understated – he’s not a villain, just a man who takes what he wants, untroubled by the consequences.
At the half way mark Rourke flips things around. The play resets itself and starts over. This time we’re in 2018 – we know this because everyone has an iPhone – and Atwell’s Isabella is now the one placed in charge in the Duke’s absence. When Lowden’s Angelo comes before her, in an attempt to save his brother, she is the one tempted.
The gender of the characters has not been switched, merely their roles. The point seems to be that Isabella, even wielding a degree of power, is still silenced and undermined by men. When she is called ice-hearted, it lands quite differently.
But the production simply does not have space to unpack the newly complicated nature of the relationships, particularly the one between Nicholas Burns as the incognito Duke and Lowden’s now vulnerable Angelo, nor does it fully explore the implications of the revenge porn to which Isabella is subject. Then there’s Jackie Clune, playing Pompey as a comedy eastern European madam – a stereotype theatre needs to ditch.
It’s a really slick production, handsomely designed by Peter McKintosh and very well acted, but the first run-through of the play, whittled down to its essentials, is more satisfying than the attempt to update it. Though thought-provoking, it seems confused in what it wants to say about women, power and justice – but then things are confusing at the moment.