Posts Tagged ‘ Renaissance ’

Women Beware Women, review

Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
Dir: Marianne Elliott

Incest, rape and murder: Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women ticks all the gruesome boxes of Jacobean tragedy. Marianne Eliott’s production in the National’s Olivier Theatre is a feast for the eyes and gorges on the extravagance of the text. Yet in shifting the action to a more modern era, Elliott loses something of the voyeurism and callousness of Middleton’s work.

Like a seventeenth-century version of ‘Hello’ magazine, Women Beware Women brought Londoners the story of scandalous events in the Florentine Medici household. Spiced up, naturally. The Duke’s lecherous eye is drawn to the beautiful, but recently married, Bianca (Lauren O’Neil), while another young lady – Isabella (played by newcomer Vanessa Kirby) – is torn between an incestuous love for her uncle and the ridiculous buffoon she has to marry. The lynch-pin of the play, and its amoral compass is Livia, a woman who makes Lady Macbeth look docile. The finale – and I trust I am not giving too much away – is a bloodbath.

As said lynch-pin, Harriet Walker is wonderful. Her Livia is part Hedda Gabler, part Cruella de Vil. Walker revels in Livia’s solipsistic manipulations, agonising for barely a second when playing the pandar to an incestuous liaison, and hesitating even less when enabling the Duke’s rape of Bianca, by distracting Bianca’s mother-in-law with a game of chess. Elsewhere, Samuel Barnett is rather miscast as the cuckolded husband but manages wide-eyed naivety well. As Isabella’s over-loving uncle, Raymond Coulthard effortlessly commands the audience’s attention and creates the only real poignancy in this otherwise hollow tragic vision.

Design is key to this production and Lez Brotherston’s set is one of the strengths of the evening: making use of the Olivier’s rotating central disc, the set, built around a classical arch, flips between the splendour of the courts and the grubbiness of Florence’s backstreets. Olly Fox’s music helps conjure an atmosphere of corruption and decadence: sacred chants drown out the sound of screaming and bluesy jazz seduces the audience into complicity. Marianne Elliott’s decision to move the action to the Fellini-inspired 60s, however, results in confusion: the central arch bears the letters COSIMVS MEDICE. Middleton may have embellished events, but the play nevertheless depicts happenings which were all but contemporary. Elliott’s time shift seems unnecessary and detrimental: all that is left of the Medici connection is the seemingly irrelevant engraving on the arch.

During the final scene set, music, costume and dance come together to suck the audience into the gaudy melodrama. As the arch spins hypnotically, the audience catches glimpses of a brutal murder here, a mistaken identity there and the inevitable poisoned chalice. It is only in these final moments, though, that Elliott achieves something of the kitsch of Middleton’s vision.