Friday, 12 October 2018


For someone who has watched countless hours of Shakespeare in her twenty odd years of life, does it come as a surprise when I confess that I am not the biggest fan of his works? Primarily it's due to the fact that I struggle a fair bit to understand the Early Modern English, seeing as English in general is already my second language. Despite this, I have aimed to learn and experience each Shakespeare play at least once, whether it be through live theatre or through the screen, and whilst the list of the ones I actually enjoyed may not be as long as my arm, Measure For Measure has just been added to it (at least this particular re-telling has).

When Donmar first announced their new season of plays (including my beloved Aristocrats), I was very interested by the advertising that Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell would not only take on the lead roles but that they would switch roles halfway through the production. I hadn't heard or indeed witnessed anything of this sort in a play before and was looking forward to seeing how they would execute it and if it would succeed. Returning to the Donmar Warehouse so soon after Aristocrats left me in a melancholic mood for sure, after all this venue and that play became my second home for the solid two months that it was on (in which I managed to watch it eight times), and seeing the space stripped of any traces of the last production and re-decorated for Measure For Measure gave me a punch in the gut. However I was very excited to have front row seats with my friend Danielle, who is a huge fan of both Jack and Hayley, so really this play had perfect casting for her.  

The stage design is very modern with wood and marble accents that wouldn't look out of place on the front page of Architectural Digest.  Sleek steel lights also hang down from the high ceiling in a cross formation. It's a rather unexpected juxtaposition when the first cast members stride on the stage in period costumes and I was expecting this contrast to bother me for the duration of the play but surprisingly it did not. I think this is because the actors truly owned every part of the stage (something I found severely lacking in Foxfinder) and when this happens, every aspect of the production seamlessly melds into one very good story. 

Measure For Measure begins with the Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, placing the city in the care of his deputy, Angelo (Jack Lowden), whilst he takes leave on a diplomatic mission. Angelo decides to tighten the city's anti-fornication laws and when a young nobleman named Claudio sleeps with his wife-to-be, Juliet, before they are married, Angelo imprisons him and states that they will execute him as punishment. Claudio's sister, Isabella (Hayley Atwell), who is a nun, tries to save him from this fate but Angelo says he will only spare Claudio if she agrees to sleep with him in exchange. Isabella refuses, much to her brother's dismay, but in fact the Duke has not really left the city, he has disguised himself as a friar, in order to see what would happen to the city in his absence. As the friar, the Duke makes Angelo think that he has slept with Isabella, when really the woman was Mariana, whom Angelo was betrothed to but abandoned. When the Duke reveals his identity in the end, both Isabella and Mariana convince him to punish Angelo for his misconduct. Angelo tries to blame his actions on the friar, not knowing that he was in fact, the Duke in disguise. 

Compared to other Shakespeare plays I've seen, this one was short, to the point, and not difficult for me to understand. I was particularly taken by Hayley's portrayal of Isabella, it was honestly heart wrenching and her circumstances in 1604 unfortunately harrowingly relevant right now in light of the #MeToo movement and more recently and especially, the Kavanaugh case. Jack, looking a far cry from his recent roles, period pantaloons topped with an impeccable man bun, did a decent job at a corrupt figure of authority (personally would've liked to have seen Angelo played with a little more of a villainous oomph), but it's not till the second part that he truly shines. What? Oh yeah, we're only half way through this production even though the original 1604 Measure For Measure play has concluded here. During intermission, Danielle turned to me and asked, 
"Will they just run through the whole play again except with switched roles?"

"I hope not." I replied, thinking that I would most definitely get bored if that was to be the case. The stage design definitely suited the second half better, with the cast now in suits and office wear, it was clearly going to be a modernised re-telling. It did turn out to be exactly the same story, scene by scene as the first part, except it is set in present times so now you have lawyers, prisoners etc. and Angelo is now Claudio's brother, whilst Isabella is in the position of power and that is how the gender roles have been alternated. After a depressing first half for Isabella, the second part was incredibly satisfying for me as a female viewer. Again Hayley nails her new commanding role and is more than convincing as a boss babe businesswoman. I also reached the conclusion that the novice part of Isabelle (first half) and Angelo (second half) generally has more dialogue and emotional range so Jack got the chance to impress more in the second part. The whole alternating roles twist definitely works in this case and I think it breathes new life into an old Shakespeare play.

Moving on from the two leads, I mentioned that the cast own this stage and with quite a large ensemble for Donmar standards, I think that each actor does play their role very effectively. Nicholas Burns is great as the Duke/friar and I particularly enjoyed Jackie Clune's hilarious turn as a brothel owner (she even complimented my hair at stage door but she did not pay me to say that). This production is an interesting spin on Shakespeare and whilst it is essentially the same story repeated in the duration of one play, I found it neither tedious nor boring. If you aren't a fan of Shakespeare like me, I definitely recommend giving Measure For Measure a go because it's a bit of an anomaly. And if you are a Shakespeare nerd, this production is a refreshing take that I hope you'll appreciate.

Measure For Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until the 24th of November and tickets can be found here.


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