Chal­leng­ing the clas­sics

Goes to see a mod­ern ver­sion of at the Don­mar Ware­house where roles are re­versed

The Sunday Telegraph - - Arts -

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

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