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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Measure For Measure
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Autumn 2018

Scientists say there is no such thing as a failed experiment – at worst it tells us what doesn't work. Josie Rourke's gender-bending adaptation of Measure For Measure tells us what doesn't work. 

At its core, Shakespeare's play is about a civil servant who attempts to use his power to force a woman to have sex with him. You can see the very contemporary resonances, and the inspiration for director Rourke's attempt to explore the play from a twenty-first century perspective.

It's just that her method doesn't really illuminate Shakespeare much, or use Shakespeare to illuminate our world much.

Rourke's approach is two-pronged. First, she offers a stripped-down race through Shakespeare's text, omitting everything but the central sexual-harassment plot, in order to focus our attention on it. 

Then, after the interval, she replays the action in a modern setting (all flashing lights, cellphones and viral texting), and with the two central roles switched so that Isabella is now the predatory power figure and Angelo her virginal prey. 

The first act works modestly; the second almost not at all. 

The condensed version of Shakespeare loses much of the complex characterisations and moral ambiguities, but it does tell the central story with a baldness that makes evident Isabella's isolation in a world that assumes male power and entitlement. 

As Isabella Hayley Atwell effectively guides us to the adaptation's point of view by frequently responding to plot turns with a wry half-smile as if to say 'All right. That's the way the world works. No surprises there.'

The unfortunate impression of the second act is that Josie Rourke got the overall inspiration of the modern setting and role reversal but never worked out how to make it work. So whole chunks of plot and characterisation just don't make much sense. 

In the original Isabella is a postulant nun, explaining both her moral position and her valued virginity. But in the modern version Jack Lowden's Angelo doesn't seem to be a priest or even seminary student – if anything, he comes across as a vaguely hippie social worker. 

So his claim to sexual purity carries no inherent believability – even Claudio thinks it's a joke – and Lowden can't make the character ring true. 

The male equivalent of Mariana also makes no sense as a character, and slipping him into Isabella's bed in Angelo's place feels a little too much like rape to be acceptable. And making Nicholas Burns' Duke gay, with his own designs on Angelo, has a whiff of desperation about it. 

(In one of the few bits of subplot left here it is amusing how Matt Bardock's Lucio, a pimp in the first act, translates so smoothly into a slimy lawyer in the second.) 

Once again Hayley Atwell provides the act's one touch of insight and emotional depth by making the lustful Isabella find more of an emotional and moral struggle in the same self-justifying lines Angelo spoke in the first act. 

But the fact that director Rourke can't find a way to finish the modern version believably and just gives up midway through the final scene is further evidence that what seemed like a good idea at the time just didn't work out.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Measure For Measure - Donmar Theatre 2018  
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