The lady sitting next to me asked me if it was over at the interval. It was a fair enough question. Her English was good but she was Russian (and not Italian as I had asked her – that went down well….). Josie Rourke’s blast of a production of Measure For Measure at the Donmar certainly seemed to have everyone in a place of disquiet by the end of the first half. We’d seen the whole play in a condensed version. I have to say I was quite pleased about this as I have only ever seen it twice before: once with Josette Simon, and once with Romola Garai. Both are actors I really admire but the play just never left and impression on me. At the end of the first half of this production I had physically jolted in my seat and my mouth was open.
I had heard the director talking about her production some time ago and had remembered her talking about Isabella’s problematic silence and a cry, but nothing prepared me for the roar that came out of Hayley Atwell into the face of Nicholas Burns’ Duke.
The play had been in traditional-looking costume up until this point. I found Hayley Atwell one of those actors whom it was hard not to look at or listen to. She had such presence. I think because this was a condensed version of the play, cut to the bone the power and darkness of its plot and emotions really came across. It is like an anti-romantic comedy. By the end, a man is punished with a marriage (I gather characters have been cut altogether) and Isabella, who wants no marriage with any one, is forced into a loveless one. And her silence at the end felt painful. It seemed to be “justified” by her powerful reunion with Claudio (Sule Rimi) her brother. Rimi was another actor I found it hard not to watch, so together with Atwell the reunion was intense. But then came the roar as Isabella ran at the Duke. It was one of the most shocking moments I have experienced in theatre and I am left wondering if the women watching in the audience were more relieved than surprised at this woman’s cry against the agony of her situation.
Then something else happens. The cast change into modern costume and off we go again. Only this time Atwell plays Angelo (Isabella’s tormentor) and Jack Lowden who has played Angelo now takes on Isabella’s role. Instead of sexual repression within the context of law and religion, Lowden plays an ex-addict in a clinic. This time “Isabella” is faced with the death of Claudio or being forced back into the life of a self-destructing addict. There’s a lot of humour with the use of mobile phones but generally the modern setting is played with fairly lightly so as not to overwhelm the exploration of ideas here amongst the characters. Second time around the woman wields power but she is the tyrant. The male tyrant is now the captive.
I watched Atwell thinking is she playing a male part as a woman character or as the female actor she is. But these were pointless questions. Atwell was a woman, playing the role as if written for a woman. Actor and role were hand in glove. What was interesting was my response to the woman as “baddie” was to laugh more (along with many in the audience). There is a pleasure in it (see Killing Eve). And Lowden (who for me lacked Angelo’s insidious sexual charisma a bit in the first half) became a weak man and so for me unsympathetic. Yet at the end the horror of what Angelo has done (although his punishment as marriage to male Mariana (Ben Allen) was less effective, and the silenced Lowden forced into a kiss by the Duke was as unsettling as the end of the first half.
At the end I asked the Russian woman if she had enjoyed it. She said she had (and she had laughed quite a lot). she said she had only read he play and she had missed some of the language play in the second half because of the gender swapping (I forgot to say there as some very funny moments in the second half for this reason). But she said she didn’t like feminist things and wasn’t sure about the homosexual relationship. I said to her that this wasn’t really a feminist production; it put a woman in a conventionally male position but what it was also showing was that the abuse of power is one of the blackest of human behaviours. The final “gay” relationship was totally non-consensual. She looked thoughtful and then agreed with me.
Having said that though I have to say that, Isabella/Atwell’s scream is still a sound more likely to be buried inside a woman than a man, and for that reason it is just as important men see this production as women.
I’ve mentioned the main actors who were outstanding but I also have to not Jackie Clune’s hilarious Pompey (with Russian accent in the second half which fortunately amused my seated Russian neighbour), Rachel Denning comically and believably confident as Mistress Overdone, and Helena Wilson whose small parts as Mariana/Justice show her as an actor to watch (especially after her part in the Donmar’s previous The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).
I’m still thinking about this play and production as a friend said, those evenings are the best.
(Apologies for errors in the above – I’m short of time and had to whack it out rather than not write it at all)