I think the National Theatre has developed a house style for Jacobean tragedy - spin them suckers silly! Thank God they don't go over the top on the fake blood otherwise the audience would be splattered like a Jackson Pollock.
Yes it was time to wrestle again with the deepest desires and the darkest deeds that populate Jacobean tragedy, this time it was WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN written in 1621 by Thomas Middleton.
Marianne Elliott has proven she can take problem plays and deliver productions that give them a narrative drive - PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY, SAINT JOAN, ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL - and she has succeeded again charting a course through the dense prose of Middleton and his twisting plot. It's the thoroughness of her vision that sweeps you along - the use of the puppet characters on WAR HORSE and the fairy-tale setting of ALL'S WELL - and here again, it's her consuming vision that carries you through.
With WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN she has whisked the action to a louche and glamorous 1950s Italy, all New Look and sharp suits. She is helped immeasurably by a typically showy design by Lez Brotherston who dominates the stage with a huge Imperial arch and balcony reached by two staircases, one side with a highly polished floor and sweeping staircase for the Palazzo scenes and a drab house front and rickety staircase for the street scenes.Middleton's title shows a healthy streak of misogyny but also points up an obvious truth, yes the villainous Livia is happy to ruin the lives of two women but all the women in the play have little real power - Livia is only able to hold her own in this society because she is wealthy from her two dead husbands.
The play opens with the arrival home of young Leantio (Samuel Barnett) who has a surprise for his mother, his new bride Bianca (Lauren O'Neil) who has eloped from her wealthy family to marry her lowly lover. Leantio must return to his work and is worried that his wife's beauty will prove too tempting so has his disapproving mother promise to keep Bianca hidden in the house.Meanwhile Fabritio (James Hayes) is trying to marry his daughter Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) to the irritating but wealthy nephew of courtier Guardiano (Andrew Woodall). Isabella is dismayed with her destiny and confesses to her widowed aunt Livia (Harriet Walter) that in a perfect world she could love her uncle Hippolito (Raymond Coulthard). Livia, knowing of her brother's attraction to his niece, tells her Hippolito isn't actually a blood relative so the coast is clear to marry the idiotic husband-to-be but be the mistress of Hippolito so the two start an incestuous relationship.Livia is then told by Guardiano that the Duke of Florence has seen Bianca watching a parade from her shuttered room and wants her. Now. So Livia and Guadriano invite Leantio's mother (Tilly Tremaine) to a banquet and persuade her to bring her daughter-in-law with her.
In the play's most famous scene, Livia implores the older woman into a game of chess while Guardiano offers to show the awed Bianca around the Palazzo. He lures her to a room where the Duke is hiding and locks her in. As Lydia teases the unknowing mother-in-law with a barbed commentary on what is really happening upstairs the Duke rapes Bianca. Bianca emerges from the room and determines that to survive in this world she has to use people as she has been used.
Leantio returns to find a cold and bored wife and realises that she is now the Duke's mistress. The Duke palms off Leantio with a highly-paid job at court and he too decides he will bide his time until the best time to revenge himself. A smitten Livia seduces Leantio and for a while it looks like everyone has what they wanted.
But the Duke's cardinal brother is appalled at the licentious nature of the court and demands the Duke leave the married Bianca. The angered Duke (Richard Lintern) instead decides to change Bianca from a married woman to a widow. This action sets in motion a chain of events that lead to a sumptuous wedding feast littered with corpses. Of course it does - a dead cast in Jacobean tragedy is as odds-on as an encore for a cabaret act.
Two things struck me as I watched the play: the dramatists who wrote these revenge dramas always based them in Italy or Spain as if to prove that such actions could never happen in England and also after three hours of pure lip-smacking schadenfreude, they then grudgingly had to end the play with a survivor of the highest moral rectitude denouncing the nasty actions - like a tacked-on uplifting coda put on a slasher-porn film.
The production had me gripped from the get go - Elliott's direction was clear and fast-paced and most of the performances glittered like stiletto blades flashing in the light.
The production frustratingly only falters in the final bloodbath. The text has it taking place during a masque but here, as the revolve spun the set at a brisk pace, we watched the cast murdering each other without a world said - a massacre in pantomime. There was SO much going on that it left one simply confused who was doing what to who. This faltering spinning end also hampered Melly Still's REVENGER'S TRAGEDY last year at the Lyttleton.
The performances mostly hit home. Harriet Walter was on the top of her supercilious best as Livia, grasping the humour in the role as much as the dramatic possibilities. She is not the most sympathetic of performers but despite yourself, you find yourself rooting for Livia - Walters' playing of the chess scene was a model of timing and wicked sly delivery.Samuel Barnett was an odd choice for the cuckold Leantio playing the role almost like an Ayckbournish wheedling wimp but he still made an impression as did Tilly Tremaine as his overbearing mother. Lauren O'Neil made an assured stage debut as Bianca, moving effortlessly from the optimistic bride to the avaricious mistress of her rapist, her final appearance at her wedding banquet recalling Eva Peron. I suspect we will hear more of her.Vanessa Kirby was slightly under-charged as Isabella but then hers is the least exciting of roles. She was ably supported by the excellent James Hayes as her grasping father and Raymond Coulthard was suitably suave as her incestuous uncle but it was her misfortune to be paired with Harry Melling who gave a performance of profound punchability as the ninny Ward. His servant however was played by Nick Blood with an easy grace.
Andrew Woodall was excellent as the devilish Guardiano looking like he had escaped from a Pinter play. Richard Lintern as the Duke was oddly muted but did have a wonderful first appearance - slowly parading the stage in a solo spotlight, highlighting the golden glitter showering down on him.
As I said the production dazzled thanks to Lez Brotherston's set and costumes and the production was yet another triumph for the lighting design of Neil Austin. The production was also helped immensely by Olly Fox's jazz-influenced score which gave the production's transitions a filmic quality as did Wendy Nieper's seductive, smoky vocals.