Walking out of the National after Tuesday night’s preview of A Woman Killed with Kindness, one question was foremost in my mind: what the hell did director Katie Mitchell think she was doing? Why revive this weak member of the revenge-tragedy era (1607) of plays in the first place, and why stage it so the cast spend a quarter of their time talking to the set and another quarter making so much noise moving furniture and dishware that the dialogue is incomprehensible? Sat in row Q of the stalls, I could see all of the elaborately filled stage (two houses, two stories each, two staircases, and more doors than an Escher print), but for the first ten minutes about all I heard was “bride,” “cut the cake,” and “one thousand pounds” (in close proximity to the words “hawk” and “hounds”). Then the pretty lady in white (Anne Frankford, Liz White) was led upstairs by her husband (John Frankford, Paul Ready), to shortly come down limping and clutching her bloody crotch. Good God. I might have asked where we were going, but frankly I didn’t understand how we’d even got to where we were.
As a positive note, my inability to hear so much of the dialogue (a problem I heard other people discussing as they left the Lyttleton) meant that I was in a state of dramatic tension throughout, as everything I did see happening in this 2:10 (no interval) production was done in a state of isolation that left me completely unable to guess what was going to happen next. It was rather like having one of those amnesia problems that leaves your short term memory destroyed. The brother sent to jail (Sir Charles Mountford, Leo Bill), would he come back? His sister, depressed and prone to pulling a rifle on housebreakers (Susan, Sandy McDade), what was her motivation in life in general? Who was the guy who had the crush on her? Who was the guy who kept lending her brother money? Were they the same person? What did they really have in common with the developing menage a trois next door?
The one point of sanity in this whole show was Frankford’s footman (Nicholas, Gawn Grainger), who invariably spoke clearly enough that I could hear him all the way in the back of the stalls. It was a wonderful example of the skill a truly experienced actor brings to the stage. To make it better, he seemed to get all of the good lines, including the one during the card game, where he suggests the adulterous couple (and the cuckolded husband) play “between the sheets” (“knave out of doors” in the original script). This whole scene was a riot of double entendre, with no need to resort to the crude hip-thrusting that’s made many a Shakespearean play fall flat (ba dum tish) in my eyes. I considered it the highlight of the play, far better than the maudlin death scene that ended the show, which was made even more ridiculous by a phone going off playing “The Grenadier’s March” about two minutes before the last breath was drawn. People in the audience laughed when “the woman”‘s head fell; I can’t help but think it was in grateful relief for us, too, being set free of our imprisonment. This show was the low point of the year so far for me, and I only stayed through to the end so I could report back definitively on whether or not it redeemed itself at the end. In short: no. Avoid at all costs. Accept a loss on the ticket if you can’t return it; your time must be more precious than this.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011. It officially opens July 19th. You have been warned. The National website describes this play as “fast-moving, frightening and erotic.” The first, at least, is true, but by 40 minutes in you will feel like the clock has stopped and it’s all just one long never ending string of unconnected scenes until you can run out of the theater into the night. For a deliciously cutting analysis of it all, may I recommend the West End Whinger’s mocu-interview review.)