Who will believe thee, Isabelle?
Bear with me, gentle reader, as I try to do something a little different in this review of the Donmar Warehouse production of Measure for Measure. You can take it as read that the staging, lighting, music and so on were all as excellent as you might expect, and I’ll probably get to the performances in due course. But this production was clearly designed to make a bold statement about gender and power imbalances, and that’s an area in which it is impossible as a woman not have an interest.
A case in point: on my way to the theatre that evening, a random man decided to scream at me to make me jumps, and then hurled the usual insults at me after I flipped him the bird and stormed off. Not on the scale of what goes on in the play – but part of the same whole, and showing how hideously prevalent it still is…
The first half of the show was a pared back but traditional telling of the play – set in Jacobean times with gorgeous costumes and severely pruning the comic relief, removing entirely the character of Juliet and leaving just the story of a woman who tries to bring a man in power to account for his sexual acts.
To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, Who would believe me?
That might seem like a simplistic explanation of the plot of the play, but I am in no doubt that it was the plot of this play. Hayley Atwell played an Isabel* who was deeply uncertain of everything, except her love for her brother, and her knowledge that every man around her had more power than she did – her constant looks for reassurance and support showed clearly how fragile her position was, and how aware of it she was. A single moment of action – reaching out to touch the heart of a man with whom she was pleading for her brother’s life – is enough to condemn her to being threatened, sexually assaulted, and publicly humiliated. And you know that some smart-alec lawyer would have made it out to be her fault.
Her loneliness was stark. The only person on her side was the friar who was actually the Duke – so we all knew he had an ulterior motive. The nuns she is supposed to be joining are never seen after the establishing scene, and the only other woman she talks to is the not-exactly-impartial Mariana.** What was worse was her isolation even when she wasn’t alone – her abuse at Angelo’s hands on at least one occasion was in the full sight of the Provost, but you knew he would not take her part if she complained – after all, he didn’t when it was happening.
Angelo, by contrast, was a man coolly in charge of everything, only momentarily surprised by his response to Isabel’s touch before quickly getting down to working out how to have his way with her. And why does he not reach for an honourable solution? He is free to marry her, after all, but no, he jumps straight to getting what he wants. And blaming her for the emotions he feels.
What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
That’s still a textbook move, isn’t it! It’s not my fault she made me feel that way, it’s her’s. And I’m not responsible for anything I do…
And then there’s the Duke, the closest thing this play has to a hero. There’s a bit where he kisses the back of Isabel’s neck as she weeps in his arms which felt almost charming at the time, but, viewed as part of the whole, starts to feel like that is just the way I have been to think about demanding men – god knows it was an intimacy to which she did not consent. And it is hard to avoid the fact that he uses Claudio’s death as a tool to manipulate Isabel just as much as Angelo does (albeit he doesn’t actually endanger Claudio’s life). And he grossly betrays her trust – first, by gaining confidences as a friar that he had no right to and second by drawing out that appalling court room scene. Little wonder, then, that her response to his proposal is a raw scream of rage.
I will go darkly to work with her
The court scene is where the modern day shines through the clearest. After all, we spent September following the story of a woman who came forward to say a man was not suited for high office because of the way he treated women, who was not backed by other men who were allegedly present, who was insulted and mocked by those in the positions of the highest power and who, for her pains, saw the man confirmed in his power and she forced to leave her home due to the level of hatred she received.
The only difference is the ending. No-one accuses Isabel of unfairly ruining Angelo’s life, and there is a good chance the Duke would make him pay for his actions. So this is actually a greater win for Jacobean Vienna than the modern day.
My false o’erweighs your true
So if the medieval world is the one we are living in, what to make of the second half? This was a modern adaptation, with Isabel the Duke’s second in a bustling law practice (by the look of it) and Angelo the one who would beg for his brother.*** It was not the modern world I recognised, though a number of reviewers have tried to insist it is (and that the message of the piece is that power always corrupts).
The first thing it was, was an interesting mirror on the first half, which raised questions that made you think – hard – about both tellings. Why was it we had the pleasure of watching (possibly cult-member, possibly addict) Angelo undressing and re-dressing on stage, when we never even saw novice Isabel’s hair? Why did he wear his own clothes, rather than the tracksuit he was due to change into? And why was he so uncomfortable in them? The character seemed to be almost permanently plucking at his waistband in a way that Jacobean Angelo did not, so I’m pretty sure it was a deliberate acting device.****
The modern-day Duke’s actions to Angelo felt much more controlling than when he did the exact same thing to Isabel.***** What does that say about what we ourselves feel to be normal in relationships between the genders? This Isabelle was careful to molest Angelo entirely in private (no watchful Provost now), while Angelo got to turn up in court with supporters – what does this tell us about isolation? If it comes to that, what are we to make of the fact that this Isabel was entirely surrounded by men? They gender-flipped Mariana (would a lesbian/bisexual Isabel have been a step too far when a gay Duke wasn’t? Or was it just to maintain the solidarity with Angelo?) so Isabel really was alone this time – and in a very different place to Jacobean Angelo. And indeed a different place to current-day Angelo, who as well as Frederick (the new Mariana) had some nameless helpers storming court with him when went to demand justice. Not to mention that this Frederick seemed to have no real love for Isabel as Mariana had for Angelo – only too happy, he, to humiliate her and side with the rest of the men.
I said I didn’t recognise the modern-day half as the real world, but that’s not to say I didn’t recognise it at all. A world where a woman is regarded as a bitch for doing her job, while the men around her fail to do theirs (I saw that bribe, Escalus). A world where every woman is outwardly demure but secretly rapacious (I saw the fellow novice try to cop a feel of Angelo). A world where a woman who does have sex should be publicly humiliated (we all heard that sex tape – that was the point). A world where gay men force their attentions on unwilling victims (we saw that in the Duke as he went from stolen kiss on the neck to bruising attempted snog). This is the world that those who would defend the patriarchy live in – the world of “But the knickers she was wearing means she really wanted it” and “that bitch got promoted – who is she sleeping with and how can we ruin her life” and “the gays are all secretly fantasising about you”.
That anyone seems to think it is the real one leaves me sad.
* Shakespeare calls her Isabella and Isabel – this production tended to stick with the latter – presumably as it allows for easier scansion when inserted in place of Angelo.
** It’s a bit derailing to put in the main text, but Mariana also gets a bum deal doesn’t she? She never gets a chance to review her feelings in light of the news that Angelo’s been trying to sleep with another woman – which might be a deal-breaker for some…
*** The set and sound moved the action beautifully between the two – the wooden walls of the back which had seem so redolent of wooden panelling were now shot through with neon lights that conveyed “modern office” and the beautiful liturgical music gave way to Frederick listening to (intentionally) dire pop on a radio. Seals and letters became emails and veryone was permanently on their phones. And I’d like to give a special shout-out to the costumier for Duke’s hoodie/dog collar combo – convincingly lawyer-pretending-to-be-vicar, if nothing I have ever seen an actual vicar wear – and Isabel’s fierce dress, with pockets…
**** And OK I’m allowing myself a tiny gush at how fabulous both Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden were, in both roles. Of course it’s a lot easier to show your range to an audience when you get to play two entirely different roles, but they really knocked the duality out of the park, with no bleed across between roles to distract from the new power differential at play.
***** My own father used the term gaslighting! So proud!