Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sat 13th October 2018.
The first half of this play has many powerful moments, the second half goes off the rails in ultimately troubling ways.
For Act 1 director Josie Rourke condenses Shakespeare's play into a swift moving spare period drama while at the same time managing to find powerful topicality. When Isabella (Hayley Atwell) threatens to expose Angelo's (Jack Lowden) advances and he dismisses her contemptuously with "Who would believe you?" it feels chillingly contemporary. Rourke also finds great resonance in small silent moments. The Provost (a lovely performance by Adam McNamara) bringing water to Isabella and, one senses, seeking through this act forgiveness for his silence in the face of Angelo's behaviour, and being rejected. Mariana (Helena Wilson) reaching out beseechingly for Isabella's hand, begging her to kneel to save her husband's life - when their hands clasp and Isabella kneels it is powerfully moving. In general Wilson makes a lot, like McNamara, of a small part. Elsewhere there's fine mocking commentary from Matt Bardock's Lucio and a nicely played slow undermining of his own authority by Nicholas Burns as the Duke. Sule Rimi's Claudio has good presence but a tendency to rush delivery.
There are some flaws, the masking of the Duke is played in a way that suggests that Rourke doesn't really believe in it, Michael Bruce's choral interludes felt intrusive to me and the condensing ultimately perhaps rushes us forward a bit too much. Yet overall Act 1 gives us a convincing world and characters about whom I came to care. Would that the show had ended with Isabella's screaming rejection of the Duke's advances. But sadly instead an overly clever concept hoves into view. Lights flash, loud music plays and suddenly we are transported to the present day, Isabella is now in Angelo's place and the whole narrative is beginning again.
And thus Act 2 repeats the drama, and the show falls victim to a host of problems. Shakespeare's text does not bear up under this close scrutiny, not least because the readings first time round are almost all stronger. The musical interludes between scenes are not improved by the updating of style. The modern setting never really convinces - the biggest problems occurring with the use of religion. First time round Isabella's faith and her vow of chastity are completely believable, second time round Angelo's (now in Isabella's place) just causes the jaw to drop. There's the kernel of an interesting idea about making the man the chaste virgin and upending the usual stereotype but I'm afraid I just never believed that this man was a virgin - part of the problem is the suggestive way one of the modern "monks" strokes his knee in the convent scene, with Lowden giving me the distinct impression that he'd quite like to be off down the corridor after her - thus making it unconvincing that he's not prepared to sleep with Isabella to save his brother's life. The modernised segment fails on the religious point in other ways - it becomes a dodgy looking cult, which I didn't feel anybody on stage was really taking seriously, and thus making it unconvincing that anybody obeys the Duke/Friar. We now have a homosexual for a heterosexual passion in his case which comes across as bizarre rather than genuine (Michael Billington in his Guardian review astutely suggested that it would have worked far better had the Duke become a Catholic priest).
There is also a more disturbing aspect to this second half. In the period version the treatment of women is highly problematic, but this is powerfully critiqued, as noted earlier. In the modern version, having apparently empowered at least one woman, Isabella, the direction proceeds to humiliate her to a greater degree than anything that happens in Part One - Mariana (now a man) records Isabella's climax in the garden and proceeds to distribute it to everybody's mobile phones. But there is no critique of this behaviour to correspond to those crucial aspects of the staging in the period version.
The modern Act 2 is also undermined by the fact that it is never clear what the relationship is between the two versions. Is Isabella dreaming her translation? Is it a collective dream? Or are all the performers playing two completely different groups of people who just happen to have the same names? The answer is not clear and the result is an unresolved jarring. It's a particular problem for the character of Isabella who essentially has to behave completely differently in both parts. When she reappears in period costume at the end and is plainly about to surrender to the Duke it's not clear why she's changed her mind from an hour before.
The result is a very mixed afternoon. The first half is really worth seeing offering a number of striking images which comment subtly and powerfully on our contemporary moment. The second perhaps started with a good idea about playing with our expectations but is a sad and ultimately annoying failure in execution. Yet images from that first half continue to linger in my memory just over a week later - strong enough to make this a show worth seeing for all its flaws.