“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” Those words, spoken by a powerful politician to a woman who threatens to publicly expose his attempt to sexually coerce and exploit her, have made Shakespeare’s so-called problem play ceaselessly resonant through the years. And, with #MeToo still seething and a new high-profile iniquity coming to light on practically a daily basis, they could have been written this morning. Josie Rourke’s production – her penultimate at the theatre she has run since 2011 – is as alive to its tinderbox relevance as we have come to expect from this intelligent director, and takes a bold, uncompromising approach to the text. Some of her innovations pay off more convincingly than others. But it’s a staging full of fine performances and provocation.
Rourke pushes the play’s double-edged premise, in which moral absolutism and corruption are two sides of the same coin, to its limits. It’s an idea reflected even in the symmetry of Shakespeare’s title – and accordingly, Rourke gives us not just one version of the drama’s narrative, but two. The first half of the production offers a swift, brutal, condensed version of the work as we know it, with Nicholas Burns as the vacillating Duke Vincentio, who, unconvinced of his own suitability to rule (with good reason, as it turns out), appoints a deputy and then disguises himself as a friar to spy, meddle and finally return to pass judgment and bask in hypocritical sanctimony. Jack Lowden is his hapless replacement, Angelo, an ascetic whose sexual disgust verges on psychosis.
Hayley Atwell is Isabella, the fervent novice nun who pleads for the life of her brother, condemned to death by Angelo for getting his girlfriend pregnant outside wedlock, and who finds herself the victim of Angelo’s rapacious lust. Performed in modern dress beneath a cruciform arrangement of flaming torches, it’s urgent and gripping. As it ends, though, Isabella’s habit is whipped away, and there she is, power-suited and promoted; and for the remainder of the evening, as the play unravels for a second time, she’s the one with rank on her side, while Lowden’s earnest Angelo is a devotee of an abstemious therapy group who catches her lascivious eye.
At first this seems like an over-generous gesture of gender parity. Yes, women too are capable of sexual exploitation, but it’s infinitely less common than reprehensible behaviour by men. Moreover, men are still statistically far more likely to attain the kind of power and status that affords them the opportunity to prey on the vulnerable. But what Rourke shows very clearly is that either way, women are still screwed. When second-act Isabella is elevated to the post of deputy, her envious, passed-over male colleagues exchange eye-rolling expressions of disapproval behind her back. She is utterly isolated in her new position. And both endings of the play see Isabella forced into a marriage she abhors – a subjugation of body, soul and mind, at which Atwell screams her despairing defiance.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the concept requires you, in effect, to sit through the play twice, and the production is less convincing on the broader scenes of grotesque comedy than it is on the discomfiting politics. That said, Burns is brilliantly slippery as the self-regarding Vincentio, and both Lowden and Atwell juggle their twin roles of abuser and abused with prickling intensity. Ultimately, this is a rewarding interpretation that sizzles and burns with all the long-smouldering anger of inequality and injustice.