A masterclass in interpreting Shakespeare: whether verse line or thought line take precedence. 

Josie Rourke‘s Measure for Measure is a well-rounded and creative exploration into interpretations of the at times dated words of William Shakespeare. Rourke’s concept interprets the same selection of text in two worlds, differentiating between original context and a modern-day alternative. This results in finding striking resemblances and uncovering new conversations within the text relating to currently debated topics, such as gender imbalances and misconceptions in mental health issues. The underlying theme seems to be, irrelevant of gender, corruption of power is something we are all susceptible to.

In the first, classical, interpretation, it is harder to find the purpose of the story. That is not to say there isn’t one. Nicholas Burns‘s Duke Vincentio’s incredible ownership of the words clearly gives him complete control without a doubt. Every thought he speaks has a clear intention to change whomever he is affecting, and he finds its need to be spoken. Similarly, Matt Bardock (Lucio) finds a three-dimensional living character, combining his use of the space and language to an entirely inspirational level. Hayley Atwell is a strong and believable Isabella, though sometimes her changes in thought are lacking, making her become slightly monotonous. Equally, Jack Lowden‘s Angelo has a tendency to play an emotion or atmosphere without the light and shade of a young man being given access to power; in particular, I was surprised the shady assault was not a higher stakes atrocity. 

Helena Wilson‘s Mariana is compelling and genuinely heartbreaking as you watch her struggle with her grief over Angelo’s rejection. Equally, Ben Allen (Frederick) is very hard to watch (emotionally) as he lets Isabella’s rejection cripple him. 

The second half doubles back, telling the story again but swapping Angelo with the previously oppressed Isabella. It is incredibly engaging to watch the story again but with Atwell almost getting her revenge on Lowden and seeing the heartless Isabella toy with Angelo’s compassion for his brother Claudio (Sule Rimi). The threats from Isabella are malicious still but in a less vicious aggression. Perhaps this is due to the modernisation of the delivery, with a more psycho-realist approach to the story. 

I could champion almost every actor in this innovative and highly effective juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s harrowing tale, and really hammer home its importance today. Really do go check it out if you want to see how varying deliveries of what some would call a pre-historic text can make it lift off the page, and turn it into a story just as important as any contemporary story you will find in London.

Measure for Measure is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. For more information and tickets, click here


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