REVIEW: ‘Measure for Measure’, Donmar Warehouse

Measure for Measure‘, Donmar Warehouse

  “The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?”.

  Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse Josie Rourke directs their latest production of William Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure‘, a play striving for redemption, truth, justice, mercy and equality.

  The play is performed twice – set once in the year of its original performance, and once in 2018, mirroring closely the socio-political climate of today. Abridged each time, both halves of this streamlined production hurtle forwards at an intense pace. Despite obvious differences, or updates, to be more precise, with regards to the second, modern setting, most notably in terms of such things as clothing, and technological advancements, when it comes to such thematic elements as justice, mercy, and inequality (between men and women, the powerful and the powerless), there are several striking similarities – showing once more just how little the world has advanced in over 400 years. Particularly in the shadow of the recent #MeToo campaign, this production bears a disturbingly resounding relevance, the production’s 400 year time lapse exposing the fact that, though the players change, the game stays the same. 

  Within each performance, Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden alternate the roles of the powerful Deputy, and the powerless Novice, in a strikingly powerful gender-reversal that sees the tempter becoming the tempted, and vice versa, highlighting the differing attitudes of a society when viewing, responding to, and punishing, men and women.

  The production gives voice to victims – both male AND female – attempting to address the imbalance of equality between the two.

Jack Lowden (Angelo) in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan
Hayley Atwell (Isabella) in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan











  The play begins with Nicholas Burns‘ Duke of Vienna handing absolute power to his Deputy, Jack Lowden‘s Angelo, an act symbolised with the handing over of the Duke’s livery chain, and all the power and responsibility that comes with it.

  Angelo uses this newfound power to reinstate an ancient law, that condemns to death all those who commit sexual misconduct, including Sule Rimi’s Claudio, who stands accused of sleeping with the now pregnant Juliet.

  When Claudio’s sister, Hayley Atwell‘s devout Isabella, pleads to Angelo for mercy, he begins to lust after her, leaving him guilty of the very act he has condemned Claudio for.

  In the first half of the production, Angelo propositions Isabella, stating that he will allow her brother to be pardoned, IF she yields her body to him. During this scene, Angelo continues to advance towards Isabella, moving in close to her, as he desperately attempts to regain some distance between them – he presses her in, backing her into a corner, offering her no way out. Invading her personal space, Angelo makes it very clear that he has the control in this situation – she is powerless. When he sits on a bench and pulls her into him, slowly but forcefully lifting her dress, he the most powerful physically, Isabella can do nothing but turn her head away and cry.

  Adam McNamara‘s Provost, the man who runs the prison, and so technically under the employ of Angelo, is just as powerless to stop it – he lowers his head, looking away, choosing not to see. Although some might argue this to be a cowardice on his part, or guilt, perhaps, it also suggest that many can, and are, affected, by the actions of just one man, whose abuse of power often has more than just one direct victim. Angelo has been given absolute power, so all are forced to submit, whether they will or no. This then raises questions of its own – are those that are aware of such a circumstance made guilty by their knowing, even more so for their not speaking out? For their silence? For averting their eyes, and pretending not to see? If so, perhaps there are a great deal more guilty people in the world than those that commit said act? On the other hand, are such ones also powerless? As powerless, perhaps, as the victims themselves, as those directly affected? Are they also afraid to speak out? Will there be repercussions for them if they do? Are they too, like the victim, forced to ask:

“To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?”.

Adam McNamara (Provost) in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  At the end of the first half of the production, when the Duke brings everything to a resolve, albeit a forced and problematic one, he asks Isabella to marry him. In Shakespeare’s text, there is a silence at this point, a silence that has interpreted in different ways. Here, however, Isabella screams into the silence, into the face of the Duke – “NO!!!”. It is a piercing, desperate, but above all, defiant sound – one that highlights the production’s attitudes, and hopefully, the changing attitudes of today’s society, that sees more women standing up and speaking out, against inequality, and against injustice – in fact, the injustice of inequality itself.

  The fact that Duke, after having helped Isabelle escape the dreadful situation she found herself in, now asks her to marry him, is laughable. In fact, it did elicit an audible chuckle, and a few horrified gasps, from members of the audience. He has delivered her from one man, and appears to slip, although subtly, into his place. It seems as though he feels she should be indebted to him, should owe him, paying to him to same currency with which he claims to pay her – love. He demands love – “give me love” – in reparation of his own for her. Is he then any better than Angelo?

  After Isabella’s scream, the lights go down, then flash harshly, as these so-called “great men” too strongly try to wield the thunder and lightning of Jove himself. When the lights go back up, the cast are now in modern, corporate dress, and in position for the play to begin again, to start over, from a different angle. The first lines are spoken, and the duke hands over his lanyard to Isabella, thereby handing her control. We must prepare, once more, to become trapped in this seemingly never ending cycle of corruption, hypocrisy, injustice and inequality.

Nicholas Burns (Duke) and Hayley Atwell (Isabella) in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  Post-interval, the 2nd half of the production brings with it its own problems – its own statements of inequality. Now, it is a woman who holds absolute power and, still very much a patriarchal society, other characters respond to her very differently than they did to Angelo, whose word they accepted without question or hesitancy. The most notable instance of this is when she sentences Claudio to death, and is met with laughter. Isabella is not respected, not treated seriously. Therefore, although now playing the role of the deputy, supposedly powerful, it appears as though Isabella does not have as much power as Angelo did 400 years earlier – and there lies an inequality. Could one even argue that, in a way, the character is still a victim – victim of a repressive patriarchal society, one of toxic masculinity and male sexual domination, that means, although she might hold the same position as might a man, she can never wield the same power, and earn the same respect. Undermined by the male characters around her, laughed at, it is not surprising that Isabella initially appears a little insecure, not the explicitly and unashamedly manipulative character of Angelo’s Deputy. Is she a victim because of what has gone before, of what has been considered acceptable for so long, of what has been hidden under the carpet – does this explain her proposition to Angelo, a cause for her reasoning that this is a way for her to, not only get what she wants, but get along in life? 

  In this half of the production, what is ever more prominent is this idea of corrupt, hypocritical and immoral governmental and judicial officials. When Jackie Clune‘s Pompey Bum, pimp for Rachel Denning‘s Mistress Overdone, appears in the courtroom, it appears she is known to Raad Rawi‘s Lord Escalus, who attempts to hide his face, suitably embarrassed. In court acting as an establisher of justice, he too has obviously committed the very act set down against in the law they are trying to serve – that is, fornication outside of marriage. Until this point, Escalus had appeared a rather saintly character, a firm upholder of the law himself, a character striving for true justice. However, we now get an image of such corruption “wrapt up in countenance” – furthering the notion that those in higher positions can cover up their past misdeeds, hiding their faces, while outwardly seeking to condemn others for the same acts they themselves have committed.

Sule Rimi (Claudio) in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  When looking at both halves of the production, they appear to have very different moods, most notably in the way society responds to the ‘victim’. In the first half, other characters seem to respond to Isabelle with a general feeling of sympathy, quite possibly pity. When she tells her brother Claudio of her predicament, he exclaims “it cannot be”, doing so in a particularly genuine, desperate manner. However, not wishing to die, he begins to gently question her as to whether Angelo has true feelings for her, and the situation between the two escalates as Isabella takes great offence, and takes her leave of him. In the second half, however, which pits Angelo as the victim, the mood is one of generally less understanding, and nowhere near the amount of sympathy shown to Isabella. Claudio’s line – “it cannot be” – is delivered so very differently, so sarcastically, with so little regard for his brother, for his brother’s honour, and his brother’s chastity. Claudio was much firmer, much more forceful, much more aggressive, with Angelo, than he was with Isabelle. Isabelle’s line to Angelo in the second half, “Be that you are – a man”, holds much more weight here. Effectively, it appears as though she is telling him to ‘man up’, to ‘take it’.

  In the original text, it is declared that “women are frail”. This wording is used in the first half of the production, in reference to Isabella. However, in the second half, Isabella’s acknowledgement that “men are frail too” bears more resonance in today’s society, as the general acceptance of men talking, of men speaking out, sharing their feelings, is gaining greater speed. Reflecting the shifting attitudes of society over time, it is now more widely promoted that men also have frailties, vulnerabilities, that are by no means weaknesses, and do not make them any less of a man. By subverting the play’s typical gender roles, this production attempts to destroy the stigma associated with men speaking out and, by having Angelo in this predicament is further testimony to the fact that men are subject to such things as sexual harassment, domestic abuse, even rape – a victim can be a male, and often is. Having Angelo come forward into the courtroom, put on trial, speaking out against Isabelle’s sexual domination over him is both inspiring and empowering, and art such as this can hopefully go a long way in encouraging other men to do the same.

Sule Rimi (Claudio) and Jack Lowden in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  Inequality is present in several forms within this production – not only in the ways men and women were, and still are, viewed, how they are treated, and how others respond to them. There also exists an alarming inequality between those in positions of power, and those not. The belief of those in powerful positions, such as Angelo in the production’s opening half, that they are somehow superior to others, and that this superiority somehow places them above the law. Those people, like Angelo, that are confident in the ability of the status, their reputation, and their austerity, to protect them. Even when on trial, Angelo attempts to silence Isabella by declaring her mad – “her wits… are not firm”. All too often, this is the case – victims are silenced, and perpetrator is protected.

“Who will believe thee? My unsoiled name, the austereness of my life, My vouch against you, and my place in the state, will so your accusation overweigh… My false o’erweighs your true”.

  At the end of the first half of the production, the Duke sentences Angelo to death, “measure still for measure”, an “Angelo for a Claudio”, an ‘eye for an eye’. Helena Wilson‘s Mariana, a lady Angelo was contracted to several years earlier, pleads to the Duke for clemency, and desperately begs Isabella to join her in doing so. Isabella, the victim of Angelo’s lust, gets to her knees alongside Mariana, unaware at this point that her brother is still alive, appealing for the mercy she did not receive at his hand. Angelo is pardoned, and the Duke makes them marry, telling Angelo to “love her”.

Hayley Atwell (Isabella) and Ben Allen (Frederick) in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

  However, there is no reprieve for Isabella at the end of the second half. Ben Allen’s Frederick, her earlier intended, does not plead to the Duke on her behalf. She prepares herself for death. There is no redemption for her, no pardon. Why does it seem that Isabella is punished more severely, for committing the same crime as Angelo’s Deputy. During Isabella’s trial Frederick, to prove that he slept with her in Angelo’s stead, provides as evidence a recording he took of Isabella when the two were together, which he played over a microphone in the court, but not before sending the recording to all present, who opened it on the mobile devices, laughing. Isabella is shamed, humiliated, to a greater degree than Angelo’s Deputy was, with seemingly greater consequences for her.

  Tempter or tempted. Who sins most? Which is the victim?

  To close the production, Isabella returns once more to the stage, once more in her nun’s habit, and stands, facing the Duke, as she utters the first line of the production – “I come to know your pleasure” – standing out against the modernity of the other characters. This fusing of these two eras shows them for just how similar they are. Despite few minor differences, of no real significance, such as dress, the passing of 400 years has altered nothing of any real value. Injustice and inequality still reign.

  The cycle is ready to begin again. What will it take to break it?

Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse lays bare the scope of justice, highlighting the difference between “lawful mercy” and “foul redemption”.

The word ‘justice’ is used several times in the production, emphasised and repeated by both Isabella and Angelo when demanding justice from the Duke. When Angelo storms the court with two protestors in the second half, chanting justice, holding a banner with the hashtag, #TruthIsTruth, we see just how much the people of a modern society strive for justice – and true justice, one that applies leniancy if and when it is due, one that treats all equally, showing due respect and understanding to any and all victims, and one that punishes all equally, according to their crime, and regardless of their position. The world still has a long way to go in this respect, to achieve a time where all are measured in accordance with their worth, and with what they deserve, a world where no longer will it be the case that “some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall”.

  The production shines a spotlight on unreasonable inequality and reasonable equality – an equality that goes hand in hand with true justice, a justice that does not alter with the passing of time, urging us all: “Do not banish reason for inequality; but let your reason serve To make t’e truth appear where it seems hid, and hide the false seems true”.

  The play’s title is so profoundly relevant for this production. A “measure for measure”, the only shred of true equality in this production is in the similarities between its two halves. 1604 and 2018 have been pitted against each other and, in terms of justice and equality, they have been weighed, they have been measured, and both have been found wanting.

Jack Lowden (Angelo) and Hayley Atwell (Isabella) in Measure for Measure. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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