Sir David Hare’s weird new play sets out to chronicle the history of the Labour movement from 1996 to the present day. But it makes no mention of Corbyn, Momentum, the anti-Semitism row or rumours of a breakaway party. The drama is located in the dead-safe Miliband era and it opens with talk of a leadership election. The two best candidates, Pauline and Jack, are old lovers from university. Pauline is a doctor who entered politics when budget cuts threatened the hospital where her mother was being treated for cancer. Jack is a colourless Blairite greaser, a sort of Andy Burnham without the mascara, who is still besotted with Pauline despite being newly married to Jessica.
The play kicks off with an announcement from Pauline, who sits as an independent MP, that she doesn’t covet the Labour leadership. We then scoot back and watch the pair as student lovers. Jack, the doting puppy, remains faithful to Pauline even though she keeps a busy roster of alternative playmates on the go. Fast-forward, and we watch politician Pauline giving an interview in which she rashly declares: ‘I’ve nothing to hide.’ A real politician using that phrase on TV would be haunted by it for the rest of her career. Pauline is, of course, hiding two things. First, her ambition to stand as leader. Second, her Labour party membership while she was an independent standing against a Labour candidate, which she arranged without the knowledge of her constituents. Such inept mendacity would be swiftly uncovered during a leadership contest. When Jack discovers her secret manoeuvres, he fails to use this toxic information to ruin her pitch for the top job. Why? Any activist or A-level politics student could have helped Sir David to avoid these blunders.
In one of the play’s dottiest scenes, Pauline visits Jack at his marital home and asks him to sign an important petition. She seduces him on his wife’s sofa and when he declines to give his signature she accuses him of sexually exploiting her. Her character is impossible to scan. She’s partly a male fantasy, a clever, beautiful, jealous minx who gobbles up trusting chaps like Jack. And she’s partly a door-slamming sourpuss who allows herself to be defined by injuries, many of them imaginary, inflicted on her by nasty men.
It’s ironic that this study in progressive feminism is an all-male achievement. Sir David’s script, commissioned by the NT boss, Rufus Norris, has been directed by Neil Armfield. A woman on the team might have helped them towards a more generous understanding of female psychology. Pauline isn’t just sexually uninhibited, she’s dangerous. In an early scene she hints that she might accuse Jack of sexual assault. He denies using force against her. ‘Your feelings were violent,’ she says, suddenly telepathic. ‘I’m not sure your motives were pure.’ This paranoid belief that all sexually active women are likely to cry ‘rape’ is a nervous male reaction to the #MeToo movement.
A final detail completes this nutty portrait of modern feminism: scullery duties. Pauline is an enthusiastic oven bunny who loves cooking lunch for visitors and baking sourdough bread. Invited to a burial service, she arrives with a tray of oven-fresh scones for the mourners. Scones? At a funeral? Real women should boycott, if not picket, this slanderous assault on their sex.
Measure for Measure is full of surprises. Josie Rourke’s handsome period production sprints through a shortened version of the text in barely 90 minutes. This is prudent because the full-length script drags towards the end as the Duke explains his peculiar decision to act as Vienna’s undercover ombudsman. Then Rourke delivers a stunning coup. The actors change into modern dress and the play begins afresh but with the genders of the main characters reversed. Hayley Atwell’s Isabel becomes a hypocritical predator targeting her victim, Angelo, played by Jack Lowden. Everything is repeated in a fascinating contemporary setting with plenty of witty flourishes. The brothel scene shows a posse of dolled-up hookers, one with a Russian accent, lounging on benches swiping through their smartphones.
Some scenes are uncomfortable to watch. Isabel, as the predatory deputy, delivers the ‘who will believe thee?’ speech by parodying the forced tears of a deceitful rape victim. At times the script has to clear impossible hurdles. It’s not credible that Jack Lowden, or any sentient male earthling, would decline an offer of no-strings sex with Hayley Atwell.
These minor snags aside, this is the cleverest application of gender-reversal to Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen. And it deals with a complaint often levelled against directors who tinker with the Bard: newcomers to the play deserve to see the original before they can appreciate the departures and indulgences of the alternative version. And since you get the text (or most of it) performed twice at a single sitting it’s an excellent way to cram for an examination.