Challenging the classics
Goes to see a modern version of at the Donmar Warehouse where roles are reversed
For the past year, since the eruption of #MeToo right up to the recent Brett Kavanaugh debacle, the public discourse has been continually focused on the bitter state of play between men and women. The damning notion of “the patriarchy” has become our daily bread, the phrase “toxic masculinity” the added scalding chilli.
In its invitation to openmindedness and capacity to bring people together, theatre offers the ideal medium to thrust questions on power and gender into the limelight. Yet, while there’s a feminist wave crashing across our stages, what’s missing is an urgent play that gets to the nub of sexual harassment.
Well, wouldn’t you just guess it, Shakespeare has turned up trumps again, courtesy of a work that at one level seems utterly removed from our own times, and yet, thanks to the canny intervention of Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Donmar, now seems to speak to the post-Weinstein, post-Kavanaugh gulf between sexes.
The plot of Measure for Measure is elaborate, and artful. The Duke of Vienna, aghast that his city has descended into debauchery, embarks on a crackdown – entailing the merciless application of the law, capital punishment included. Allowing himself to stay untainted, he appoints a proxy – his deputy, a figure of sexless self-restraint – only to realise that his substitute’s virtue is a sham. A man condemned to death for impregnating his intended is used by the upstart as a bargaining chip, and the devout relation who pleads for clemency is given a choice: submit to sex, or your brother dies.
So far, so #MeToo. The corrupted authority figure, Angelo, is male; the object of his lust, forced to use wiles to escape him, is female, Isabella. Yet Rourke hacks the text to tell the story twice, allowing an alternative, modern reading – heretical to some – whereby the woman is the villain.
In the first half, set in the Jacobean period, everything runs along its usual grimly comic course: Jack Lowden observes coldly as Angelo, adopting the hands-clasped attitude of the reproving puritan, his accent Scottish. His dead eyes awaken from their fixity in the presence of Hayley Atwell’s prim yet passionate novice nun. Their encounters – along with the anguished exchanges between doomed brother and unyielding sister – remain among the most intense, gripping scenes that Shakespeare wrote.
It’s beautifully staged and expertly performed – a pocket-sized version; but then we go into virgin territory, propelled into 2018 by Isabella’s wrath. Smart suits, mobiles and a modern delivery are the order of the day. Angelo (now with a London accent), the slacker-ish, tattoo’d member of a religious cult, faces the advances of a stern, viciously manipulative Isabella.
Sure, by cleaving to the original text the evening risks the drudgery of repetition. And it lays itself open to the charge that there isn’t a fully satisfactory symmetry: we’re not vexed by pregnancy out of wedlock and don’t fear the death sentence. Blokes aren’t ruined by being “deflowered”. I half-wished Rourke had commissioned a more exactingly contemporary script.
And yet, the experiment pays off handsomely: “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” says her smug nemesis first time round, despite Atwell being the picture of trembling victimhood. But the actress pulls a similar face later to prove the reverse: who believes a man over a tearful woman?
It doesn’t allow full equivalence but the question stands: is there really such a huge difference in the way women and men are subject to the sexualised abuse of position? There’s something valuably challenging about the vice-versa approach: could we, should we, see other classics rewritten? A feminised Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, say, a “male” Nora in A Doll’s House? Well, why not? Bring it on, I say. Let’s thrash this all out.
Vice versa: Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell in Measure for Measure