Tuesday 23 October 2018 12:18 pm

Measure For Measure: This buy-one-get-one-free Shakespeare is a sadly failed experiment


Until 1 Dec

It’s a strange coincidence that London last week saw the debut of two major Shakespeare productions in which two plays are staged back to back. In othellomacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith, the Moor of Venice segued into the Scottish play, with the female victims of the first transformed into the preternaturally powerful witches of the second.

This highlighted similarities between the texts, while eliding some important differences; it was not entirely successful, but a worthwhile experiment nonetheless. In Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse, meanwhile, you watch the same play twice.

This is an especially tall order given Measure for Measure is categorised as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”; brutally unfunny tragicomedies in which the protagonist is forced to grapple with a social problem.

Here, a novice must petition an outwardly pious deputy to spare the life of her brother, a request that he’s willing to accommodate only if the novice is willing to ‘accommodate’ him, if you know what I mean. This is perhaps the most #MeToo of Shakespeake’s plays.

The Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke has made some edits to shave a little off the run-time, but essentially you watch the whole play twice, staged first in the courtly dress of early 17th century Vienna, and then again in the business suits and hoodies of today. The only non-cosmetic change is that the actors playing the novice and the deputy switch roles.

Hayley Atwell is excellent as the novice (then deputy) Isabel, and she is well-matched by Jack Lowden as Angelo, the deputy (then novice). There’s a good supporting cast, but only Jackie Clune makes anything of the time-shift, translating the scruffy brothel barmaid Pompey into a glamorous, social media-obsessed, Eastern European madam.

Because the changes in the second half are largely superficial, its left to the audience to impose their own interpretation on events, and as the tables are turned, with Atwell’s Isabel pressuring the vulnerable Angelo, the most obvious inference is that power corrupts regardless of gender. If anything, this repetition detracts from the simple power of the first performance, which is timeless and universal.

The first performance ends with a quick-change, and Atwell’s sudden transformation from novice to deputy. The first scene of the play is then repeated before the intermission, and really – after 80 minutes – that is the point at which things should have ended. That single repeated scene would have been enough to prompt all the questions raised by a gender-switched update, without testing the audience’s endurance by staging another performance in full. It was a fine production the first time around; further measures, alas, were wholly unnecessary.