Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Middleton’

Review – Women Beware Women – National Theatre

April 24, 2010

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

Review – Romeo Castellucci’s Inferno and Paradiso – Barbican (Spill Festival) – and Alain de Botton “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”

April 2, 2009

Tonight J and I went to the Barbican to see Romeo Castelluci’s Inferno and, earlier in the day, his Paradiso. (Sadly I won’t be seeing Purgatorio, as I’ll be out of town the days it’s being performed.) I’m really into performance art, and I was excited after reading an article in the Guardian about it (which I’ll link to when I can find it). It sounded deliciously experimental, multi-media as all get-out, and full of really rich imagery.

Well … it is loud, and there is neon, and there are dogs, small children, and a horse on stage, not to mention a burning piano. So there are certainly lots of rich images, such as said children in a mirrored box that starts out looking like the Qa’aba (covered in black cloth), being observed by Andy Warhol. And there is a final image of a black sun slowly rising over a black wall, in a lovely sort of vision of the end of the world. But … so much of it seemed like sound and fury. Yes, Castellucci is attacked by dogs, and then goes to don a German shepherd’s skin (which later forms part of the costume of a sort of suburban American Mononoke), and a skull is crushed by a giant wall, and about forty people mime cutting each other’s throats until only one is left alive (in a scene worthy of Thomas Middleton), so there is really a LOT to look at, but nothing to care about.

But unfortunately, other than seeing this as some kind of freakish homage to Andy Warhol, I just wasn’t able to be amazed by this work despite the tremendous effort put into creating it. Yes, the three people crouching beside a dead body looked like the soldiers sleeping while Christ rolls aside the rock, but that’s just not enough for me. I didn’t see any real emotion in all of this. I mean, gosh, in the end, I wondered if my initial thought, the one I had when the curtains of the black cube were drawn away and the lights in the house were raised (so that what we saw reflected in the cube was us, the audience), was correct – that hell is being stuck in a theater with 1500 other people who aren’t really having a good time, in which case I suppose Inferno was a far cleverer show than I thought it to be.

Our conclusion was that chopping about 15 more minutes off of it (it was only about an hour and twenty minutes) would probably get the snappiness right up there and make this a much better production, but … I just don’t think that’s really likely. Still, it seems likely to be a cultural touchstone of sorts, and I expect I’ll be seeing pictures of it for years to come. (Pictures here from The Guardian – you can see how it caught my eye. Another review available at the Teenage Theatre Critis‘s blog.)

Paradiso was actually cool as shit, another cube but this time about three stories tall and gleaming white, with a tiny entrance. We had to go through a black circle into a darkened and extremely humid room beyond – which was really making me think about all of that “going into the tunnel” stuff you hear about near death experiences, but also is very reminiscent of birth imagery – where, when my eyes adjusted, I could see a pale little body two-thirds of the way up the wall, about half way out and sort of fighting as if he wanted to make it through. Water was coming out of the hole, running down the wall, and splashing on the floor. Every now and then the guy would make little agonized noises, making me think of Sisyphus or Tantalus, suffering away for a lifetime of sins.

It was difficult for me to see this as Paradise (despite the extensive notes we received upon our exit), but it was a fantastic, intense, visceral experience that brought to mind Bruce Nauman or James Turrell. Sadly, after waiting 15 minutes for our turn to be let into the room, we only spent about five minutes there – nothing was really going to happen, we had “got it,” and my partner was suffering some pretty severe neck agony due to an earlier accident that made me think we should get him back home if there was any chance of making it back for Inferno that night.

Oddly the big winner of the evening for me was Alain de Botton, who gave a talk at the National Theatre focusing on his new work, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Now, I am not a good person to write neutrally about Mr. de Botton, as I spent two years plowing through Proust and developing rather a personal relationship with the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, and after this great effort I have come to believe de Botton is the only person who’s had anything intelligent to say about Proust’s writings (which is rather like being 15 and saying some rock band really gets my angst). On the other hand, God knows my time spent in darkened rooms listening to total strangers drone on has proven to me I can be disappointed by anything.

This, however, did not happen. De Botton had interesting things to say about why people don’t enjoy work (“They’re not supposed to, but they think they are, so they’re dissatisfied”), why workplaces are bizarre (“They put policies in place to make sure you continue to value making money over, say, having sex with your coworkers”), what work says about us as a society (“It’s a good thing that people have jobs no one can understand, at least according to those that judge a society’s evolution by how specialized its workers can be”) and the biscuit industry (“Of all of the people at XYZ biscuit company involved in the design of the Biscuit Alpha, not a single one of them knows how to bake”). He only talked for about 35 minutes but I was fascinated by everything that came out of his mouth. I mean, I know he was shilling his book, but he was great! He sounded like he’d actually really learned something interesting about work. And he’s right – we spend so much of our lives there, we should really be thinking about what’s going on. And he made me think.

I found it especially interesting to listen to someone lecture an audience on a point I’d learned long ago, that it’s perfectly fine to expect work to not provide you with fulfillment, and just with money (and then call himself a cynic, which I suppose everyone who knows me thinks I am). I long ago decided that when it came to work, I was going to look, not for my “true love,” but for my “good enough” – something that didn’t aggravate me and stress me out but provided me with enough money to make the rest of my life okay.

So go, Alain, you were my big hit of the day, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting a copy of his book and regretting not going for an autograph after the show – didn’t want to embarrass myself with squealing like a 15 year old, after all. But gosh, I wish I could work for or with him. At least I realize my dream of being a paid theater critic is not nearly as reachable as my dream of making enough money to go see lots of shows – as long as I keep to those upper balcony seats.

(This review was for shows seen on Thursday, April 2nd. All quotes by de Botton are approximate as I was not taking notes. My apologies for the long gap between this article and my next one, but I’m heading to Sicily for the next 12 days and will not be watching shows!)