Thomas Middleton is a writer whose position in the body of English plays is that of an entire genre: the Jacobean equivalent of the slasher flick. Off to see Middleton? Expect a cast full of nasties and an ending that leaves you feeling not particularly sad about how many people died at the end; somehow, his deaths seem not so much tragic as well deserved, and the quantities of them are so generous as to lean toward laughter.
Unfortunately sometimes this all becomes just a bit too heavy and the two plays I’ve seen of his before this one (The Changeling and The Revenger’s Tragedy) left me bored long before their resolution; the first show went for a Grand Guignol approach, the second (at the National) was like a watered-down Three Penny Opera with the charm sucked out of it.This plus a rumored three hour running time nearly stopped me in my tracks on my way into the National to see Women Beware Women; I was tired, it had been along day, and I couldn’t imagine myself suffering along happily while a variety of people were evil to each other and then finally met a come-uppance I predicted in the first twenty minutes (or even before buying the tickets). I’m glad, though, that I didn’t, because this is not just the most successful rendition of Middleton I’ve seen, but was a dark and exciting night of theater that richly rewarded my time and financial investment.
We start in a setting of not quite genteel poverty; a young clerk (Leantio, Samuel Barnett) is returning to his mother’s house with his pilfered noblewoman bride; a sixteen year old beauty who is a cross between Catherine Deneuve and Jaqueline Kennedy, clearly slumming in her husband’s pitiful household. Theirs appears to be a relationship driven entirely by lust, appropriate enough in two such young people; but Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) appears pitiful, a gracious woman with a poor future ahead of her.
Bianca’s situation contrasts strongly with Isabella (Vanessa Kirby), a young, intelligent woman who, rather than running off with her lover, is about to be married off to an utter dolt, with her father giving her no choice in the matter. Yet, “thanks” to the intervention of her aunt Livia (Harriet Walter in a truly grand role), suddenly she’s able to face her horrid future with hope; the man whom she loves can be her secret lover and support her through this upcoming lifetime of matrimonial misery. In this “happy ending” we have our first betrayal, for the man she loves is her uncle Hippolito (Raymond Coulthard), and it is her aunt who tells her a lie to recast this affair as something besides incest so that she will accept him as her lover. Woman Beware Woman indeed. Auntie Livia is a real piece of work; intelligent, twice-widowed, “all of 39,” and independently wealthy. She seems to have fallen right off of the map of morality, yet not actually appear evil; her acts seems to be ones merely aimed at procuring pleasure for those whom she loves, at the expense of those who are, well, in the eyes of the nobility, nobodies. Nobody (nobodies) are harmed, so where is the harm in it?
Livia is a lovely model of feminine power and awareness and the horrible easiness that allows people to be cruel to those who don’t really exist in their eyes. The next victim of her machinations is Bianca, whom “the duke” (Richard Lintern) has seen and wished to seduce. The power play between Bianca and the Duke becomes a very powerful thing; given that Middleton doesn’t really write heroes and can barely be bothered with creating sympathetic characters, the question is not so much what will be her fate, but how will she take revenge on those who wronged her. I was quite excited about seeing “Kill, Barbie, Kill Kill!” in action, a veritable inverse of Elle Woods, all deliciously full of rage. Forget a sisterhood between the women; these people’s interactions were dictated soley by age, money, family, honor, and perceived advantage. Love never has a hope.
And, really, I just loved it all. Our beautiful, well-decked, arrogant nobility; the weak and stupid poor they preyed on; the gleeful anticipation of everyone getting their comeuppance. The whole was done on a brilliant set that for once used the Olivier’s revolve without making a big show of it, nicely catching the Duke’s palace on one side and the dingy backside of Florence on the other; the music captured both the 60s ambiance the design team was aiming for and the horrid rigidity of 17th century morality; and _oh_ but the staging was a treat, from the duke’s grand parade, in a spotlight with glitter showering down on him from above, to the madness of the final bloody dinner scene, with dagger-wielding masked angels smoking drugged pipes with their soon-to-be victims, the nearly dizzying revolution of the stage, the lighting highlighting one horror after another (the ghost of one murder victim being especially delicious), the fights of victims and aggressors which, flickering in a well-placed spotlght, Bianca, now shimmering with sexuality and triumph like Poppeia, reigned above an entire dining hall full of flowers and murder and nearly no blood at all. It wasn’t needed; we saw each of them die, and, truth be told, we had to feel good about watching this room full of evil people meet the fate they deserved. My goodness, it was a very satisfying night. And all of this is available under the Travellex 10 program – I’d say book your tickets now.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010. It continues through July 4th, 2010. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com.)