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Review: Measure For Measure, at Donmar Warehouse

Skilfully edited production offers a fresh and provocative solution to Shakespeare’s ‘problem play’

18 October, 2018 — By Tom Foot

Nicholas Burns and Hayley Atwell in Measure for Measure. Photo: Manuel Harlan

HOW do you solve the problem of Measure for Measure? The “problem play”, as it has been called by frustrated audiences for centuries, has triggered a wider variety of criticism than any other Shakespeare.

The 1604 script has at once delighted the left while also enraging it. It has been described as a “reactionary fantasy” or, worse, an “essay in patriarchy” in which Shakespeare ultimately takes the side of the Viennese male tyrants he portrays.

And yet, under Josie Rourke’s direction, the story so smoothly transforms into a startling take down of that very patriarchy. Perhaps the real problem has been that the play has been interpreted too often through a narrow, male lens.

At the end, when the furtive Duke (Nicholas Burns) shows the true quality of his mercy – repeating the demands of the disgraced Justice he has just exposed – the audience reacted with a burst of ironic laughter as the curtain came down.

I saw this at the National in 2004. Simon McBurney’s celebrated production – complete with Guantanamo, Bush and Blair references – focused on the repressive Justice Angelo’s surveillance society police by prison beatings, rigged trials and arbitrary punishments. Time’s up.

In this production, Isabella (Hayley Atwell) unleashes a scream of rage to make Donald Trump weep. This fierce howl, mixed in with the audience chortling, stuck in my head all weekend. The awkward dissonance left many pale-faced and scrambling for the bar at half-time.

After the interval, the skilfully edited play is told all over again but with the male and female leads swapping roles. I’m not sure if this was necessary, but it did help hammer home the concept.

As a man, just about, it made me think about the tragic male characters and the pressure to be unyielding, to show strength and oneupmanship. The line that stood out for me was the weary Isabella reflecting on “man, proud man, dress’d in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured – like an angry ape…”

Not the most dramatically spellbinding of productions, but a fresh and provocative solution to an age-old problem.

Until December 1
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