Measure For Measure

William Shakespeare
Donmar Warehouse

Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell Credit: Manuel Harlan
Hayley Atwell Credit: Manuel Harlan
Jack Lowden Credit: Manuel Harlan

If the last fortnight is anything to go by, the National Theatre's superb revival of Antony and Cleopatra may be an increasingly rare exception to a new rule.

Instead of full-scale Shakespeare, what The Reduced Shakespeare Company used as a satirical model is apparently fast becoming the norm. Three consecutive days have seen the opening of Measure for Measure, the Lyric Hammersmith's othellomacbeth and the musical adaptation of Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, all presenting condensed versions of Shakespeare running to no more than 90 minutes.

In fact, that is slightly inaccurate since this production weighs in at around two hours 40 minutes including an interval but encompasses two runs of the play, using slightly altered texts, a different ethos and direction.

To start at the very beginning, Josie Rourke has created a 70-minute version of the play, which is tasteful, maintains the spirit and is well cast with two screen favourites, Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, each given a welcome opportunity to strut their stuff on the stage.

The plot involves Nicholas Burns as Duke Vincentio who seems keen to prick the bubble of hypocrisy in Vienna using unorthodox means. He disappears from sight, returning disguised as a monk. In his place as acting ruler, he leaves Lowden's Angelo, an archetypally upstanding citizen.

The first case that the wise young man is obliged to determine involves Claudio played by Sule Rimi. With no malice, he has got his future wife pregnant rather too precipitously and, showing no mercy, Angelo condemns the young man to death.

In a city where vice is rife, this seems harsh and the only hope is for Claudio's sister Isabel, a nun in waiting, to charm Angelo into a reprieve.

In a scene worthy of any modern drama, the evil acting Duke asks of the lady the only thing that she would not give up even to save a brother.

Much of Shakespeare's comedy and plot twisting is then removed to reach a satisfying but ambivalent conclusion.

That is take one. A quick change hints at what is the come after the interval, when the play is re-run with the major difference that Isabel now takes the Angelo role and vice versa.

As such, a young woman in a gorgeous designer black dress that informs viewers that we are very much in the 21st century becomes the Duke's surrogate. She also rules with a rod of iron and demonstrates just as much hypocrisy as her Jacobethan counterpart when faced with Claudio who is found to have got his almost betrothed with child before he can afford to marry her. Somewhat incongruously today, the death sentence is once again handed down.

Now, it is Jack Lowden playing Angelo, the condemned man's brother, a kind of holy hippie, who begs forgiveness and is faced with a fate that these days is not so much worse than death as common currency.

Of the supporting cast, Matt Bardock is particularly amusing as Luchio, the kind of dodgy advocate that does more harm for those he represents than good.

The disadvantage with this dual approach is that there is a great deal of repetition. In addition, the old story does not fit into the current climate well, although it will make some question gender stereotypes.

On the plus side, Hayley Atwell shines twice over, once as an innocent and again as a tyrant. Jack Lowden also makes his mark, particularly memorable when malicious.

Fans of the leading actors should definitely give this production a go, while those in love with Shakespeare might also be intrigued to see what Josie Rourke and the team have made of the play, although some devotees might have preferred a single version, whether ancient or modern, with rather less of the filleting.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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