Donmar Warehouse, London – until 24 November 2018
This is a made for measure Measure-For-Measure. Its greatest achievement is hacking the flabby old Jacobian down to the right side of 90 minutes. It rollicks through, giving a booster jab to the drama but keeping quiet pauses and poetry.
However. Director Josie Rourke is having so much fun she runs it twice. The first, set in 1604, is a flat-out five-mouse rendition. Then, as the interval looms, in flashes of light and a booming soundtrack we wind forward in moments to 2018. The old dress is whipped off for modern and we’re back at the beginning. Ed Miliband (sitting in front) turned to his wife the QC with gasps of delight. She nodded back like a mother responding to a young boy who has just pointed out a JCB.
In this transition, Isabella (the abused sister of imprisoned Claudio) switches roles with Angelo (the pious Deputy ruling over Vienna’s vices who begins to indulge his own lusts with Isabella as the target).
The problem is that the first rendition is brilliant. Jack Lowden’s Angelo a charismatic menace. His incredibly natural, humanely sinister delivery is brilliant: “Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life, my vouch against you, and my place i’ the state” could come straight out of a modern tale of power, sexual assault and the justice system.
Likewise, Hayley Atwell is a perfect Isabella, the rage bubbling in her incredible to watch. The lines dance out of her mouth as if written yesterday. Rather than silently accepting her fate at the end of the play she lets out an almighty roar which blew tears out of my eyes. When Lowden’s creepy hands run up her skirt, her trembles are petrifying.
The twist turns this on its head, and the result is fascinating. There’s Atwell’s vicious, leery smile when she takes the role of the tyrannous Deputy, Jack Lowden’s twitchy, emasculated desperation; even the way characters like Claudio accept their death sentence when it’s delivered by a woman rather than a man.
But fascinating doesn’t quite get me over the line. You are still being forced to watch the same play again, having just seen it a Gin and Tonic ago.
Although the 2018 revamp tries to be achingly relevant , what it reaches is just more laughs. Neither Lowden nor Atwell play the opposite role as well as their original. I never buy into his horror, and her abuse seems half-hearted. Everything is slightly watered down, a bit more glib. Jokes which landed well in the first half are skipped past in the second in favour of something shoehorned in. It’s the lean 1604 telling that is a punch in the gut: a pertinent MeToo story with heart and bite.
Box Office 020 3282 3808 Until 24th November