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‘Measure for Measure’ review

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  1. © Manuel Harlan
    © Manuel Harlan

    Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell in 'Measure for Measure'

  2. © Manuel Harlan
    © Manuel Harlan

    'Measure for Measure' at Donmar Warehouse

  3. © Manuel Harlan
    © Manuel Harlan

    'Measure for Measure' at Donmar Warehouse

  4. © Manuel Harlan
    © Manuel Harlan

    'Measure for Measure' at Donmar Warehouse

  5. © Manuel Harlan
    © Manuel Harlan

    'Measure for Measure' at Donmar Warehouse

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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden swap roles in this enjoyable but flawed Shakespeare rewrite

Games of spot the difference don't get much more highbrow than Donmar boss Josie Rourke's resolutely high concept take on Shakespeare's play. She's stripped the text down to a spare hour of legal power wrangling, and staged it twice: the first time it's set in 1604, the second in 2018.

Watching the same story twice in a row is a tough sell, but Rourke sweetens the deal with a high profile pair of stars (Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell), who take it in turns to play the Duke's tyrannical deputy Angelo, and Isabella, the nun who begs him for mercy. Disappointingly for such an avant garde approach, it's the trad version that works better. Lowden is a persuasively dickish, entertainingly hypocritical Angelo, presiding over a puritanical moral crusade that sentences Claudio (Sule Rimi) to death for extra-marital sex. Claudio's sister Isabella begs him for mercy, and even though the pair's wranglings lose some of their darkness in this zipped-through version, Atwell's desperate eloquence as he pressures her into sex feels stark and striking.

With its themes of exploitation of power and gendered sexual harassment, 'Measure for Measure' could feel very current. But weirdly given that it's set in 2018, this production's second act doesn't. Instead of a nun terrified to lose her chastity, Lowden plays the part as a cerebral male hippy in some kind of mysterious mindfulness-based retreat, who tries to reason with the remorseless suited, spike-heeled Atwell. And the surrounding trappings are very, very silly: there's a lot of business with smartphones and selfies, plus some inexplicable Russian accents in the story's otherwise almost totally expunged brothel subplot.

I'm not really sure what Rourke's saying about gender politics, unless it's the top-level point that women can never win: in the first part, Atwell plays a woman forced into marriage, in the second, she's humiliated and punished for trying to exploit her power. But the show's relentlessly light tone glosses over any real pain. It's also not a radical enough rewrite to deal with all the labyrinthine complexities that updating and gender-swapping a 1604 take on sexual morality throws up: presumably accidentally, it ends up making the second act's gay pairing look sinister.

Still, if this 'Measure for Measure' falls short, it's hard to truly dislike a production with so much ambition and energy and will to remake a four-century-old play. It turns what could be a nerdy or cerebral exercise into something that feels playful, even if its bold outlines need some shading in.
Written by
Alice Saville

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