June 9, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Women Beware Women (National) @ The Olivier, London

Following The Revenger’s Tragedy a couple of summers back, Middleton is back on the Olivier stage, this time in the guise of Women Beware Women. Not only is this my favourite play by my favourite writer, but it’s directed by the wonderful Marianne Elliott with a stellar cast. Expectations, then, were somewhat high.

And yet, I was disappointed. I’m a big believer in not going in with preconditions about how roles should be played. It’s anathema to me that the plays of Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries have at any point been critically or theatrically "fixed": I want performers to create the characters that they find, not the ones which I’m expecting. However, for my taste, Samuel Barnett’s interpretation of Leantio was sorely lacking. It’s not that he was bad, for he wasn’t. This Leantio was a whining berk: slightly foppish, constantly shrugging to the audience and pouring his heart out, he lacked any guile or gumption. This is a completely valid interpretation, but rendered the character somewhat one-dimensional. There’s so much potential in that role, both reading and in performance (cf the RSC production a few years back) to explore the complexities of his emotional response. He falls in love with a woman and is overly protective of her, goes away for a few days, and comes back to find he is a cuckold and publicly so. He’s at fault, of course, but to render him so irritating and blinkered from the start is to diminish the pain and significance of Bianca’s desertion of him. The key scene where Bianca and Leantio, both now kept by their new lovers, was the closest we got in this production to seeing the complexity of those emotional responses, the bitterness and scorn in his treatment of his wife; but too often, these reactions were reduced to open-mouthed gawping at the brazenness of the adulterous pair, followed by a whinge to the audience.

What Barnett did bring to the role was the youth that made his seduction by Livia so believable and creepy. As a kept pretty boy, Barnett excelled as Leantio, he fulfilling the pampered poodle role that he had clearly wanted to play all along. This Leantio was perfectly suited to passivity, to his fine clothes and pride. It’s just such a shame that there was so little more to the character that might have made this a more dramatic change or allowed us to invest in the fate of one who is, arguably, the main part. Further, to reduce him to a mere cuckold, essentially the butt of a big joke, is to diminish the significance of the Duke and Bianca’s relationship – the production treated him just as contemptuously as the Duke himself did.

Elliott’s production was, perhaps inevitably given the title, much more about women, and the casting of Harriet Walter as Livia emphasised her role as lynchpin of play and production. Walter’s performance was extraordinary, whether in the hints of inappropriately excessive affection for Hippolito, in her wordless understandings with Guardiano, in her beautifully manipulative conversation with Isabella or in her unguarded moments lusting after Leantio. Utterly poised and fabulous, her sarcastic wit contrasted sharply with the nerves and self-beration she showed when it came to her own feelings, and her screams over Leantio’s body were heartrending.

Lez Brotherston’s revolving set was built around two massive pillars, with the decaying name of the Duke’s father engraved across the top; the world in decline following Angelo’s ascension. On one side, rusting metal doors and a rickety staircase depicted Leantio’s run-down house; while, on the other, a grand spiral staircase and marble floor served for the state scenes. The close proximity of poverty and ostentatious wealth, each literally one half of the other, underscored the play’s concern with financial security. Leantio and Bianca’s meeting in a grand hall, both dressed in the rich clothes bought by their keepers, perfectly illustrated the destructive effects of greed that had torn the pair so far from their simple, but enthusiastic (to the point of inappropriateness) romance of the opening scene.

The set allowed for spectacularly-choreographed set pieces, the first of which centred around Bianca’s rape. Livia and the Mother’s chess game was played out at a table in the middle of the former’s vast living space, and Elliott was brave enough to allow the game and conversation to hold the stage uninterrupted for a long period, the dialogue bringing out the implied significance in the moves of the pieces to great effect. Eventually, Guardiano and Bianca were revealed at the top of the staircase, appearing behind a translucent screen onto which were projected images of classical sculptures of love scenes. Silently, the Duke appeared, climbing up a back staircase and concealing himself at the far end of the screen. As the two met, the stage began to revolve, and the Duke pursued Bianca down the back staircase and across the run-down portion of the set, the rape being begun effectively in a back alley. Lauren O’Neil was particularly effective in this scene, alternately struggling and pleading.

O’Neil’s transformation following the rape was powerfully realised. Walking back down the stairs, clutching her groin (an odd gesture that I found difficult to interpret – pain or shame?), she combined her cold abandon to sin with a violent temper that manifested itself in furious, shrieked whispers at Guardiano and Livia. Her disgust and hatred for the world that had committed such a heinous crime against her caused her to grow in arrogance and confidence, nicely distinguished from her earlier polite meekness on meeting Leantio’s mother. A third transition saw her cool confidence unravel following her later meeting with Leantio, her calm breaking as she screamed her murderous intentions at both Leantio and the Cardinal.

In the subplot, Raymond Coulthard was a suave, near-Byronic Hippolito, languishing in his own unrequited love and forever smoking lonely cigarettes. Vanessa Kirby’s Isabella, meanwhile, presented herself as a demure young thing but immediately leapt at Livia’s lie, taking a very physical initiative with Hippolito on his next entrance. Watching Isabella grow in sexual confidence provided a great deal of comic fun, particularly as the Ward and Sordido evaluated her. As the two whispered, she looked scornfully at both of them, and went through the motions of turning and walking with an exasperated air. Eventually, Sordido and the Ward both lay down on their backs, demanding that Isabella walk over them so they could examine her from beneath. She gathered her skirts about her as she passed Sordido, to his annoyance; but then, reaching the Ward, she sighed, splayed her legs and stood astride his head, to his extreme delight.

Harry Melling’s idiotic and disgusting Ward was contrasted throughout with Hippolito, most notably during the Duke’s banquet. To a jazz beat, Isabella and Hippolito performed a breathlessly steamy slow dance, one of the most magnetically sexy sequences I’ve ever seen on stage. Straightaway, this was parodied by the Ward’s attempts to repeat the dance, throwing Isabella around roughly and gyrating hideously next to her. The Ward’s continual social inappropriateness, particularly in a long mock-masturbatory sequence during Isabella’s first sight of him, was contextualised by the clear attraction that Nick Blood’s Sordido held for him; within their tight homosocial(sexual?) bonds, there was no space for a woman.

Interestingly, it was the appearance of Chu Omambala’s Lord Cardinal that altered the tone of the play and began the push towards its inevitable conclusion. Against a deeply Catholic backdrop of processions and a bloody crucifix, the Cardinal’s appearances were moments of high symbolism, whether accompanied by a troupe of assistants bearing flaming candelabras or interrupting the formal wedding procession. This external pressure cut through the domestic politics and forced the hands of the key players who became increasingly desperate.

Hippolito and Leantio’s well-choreographed duel climaxed in Leantio obtaining both daggers and smiling in anticipation of victory, before Hippolito pulled out a pistol and shot him in cold blood. This was the most effective of the murders, combining effective action, cruel inversions and an emotional aftermath, which saw Walter’s Livia publicly denouncing her brother in a wave of fury. For the climactic bloodbath, however, Elliott took a very different approach. Andrew Woodall convened a group of masked servants with black wings, who greeted guests arriving for the ball in a wave of hallucinogenic smoke. These wedding celebrations became a drug-fuelled party, whose other silent preparations including Livia dressing a maid in her own clothes and donning a mask depicting a skull for her own disguise. As the party began, Elliott cut almost the entire text of the final scene, instead allowing the murders to play out as a dumb show while the stage revolved.

As a theatrical tour de force, this was spectacular and remarkably clear. Hippolito stabbed the Ward in a back alley; the fake Livia was strangled by Isabella in a chair; Isabella herself was throttled by the "angels" with white scarves; Livia was stabbed on an upstairs balcony; Hippolito fought off the angels single-handedly; and the Duke staggered about the stage having taken the cup meant for the Cardinal. The action was fast, clear and frenetic, the chaos of the murders fully evoked. Yet it was an emotionally empty climax to the play. Livia and Isabella were particularly ill-served, considering their importance, by being quickly killed and forgotten. The accompanying jazz helped interpret this sequence as a meaningless and almost impulsive series of slaughters, sloppily organised and improvised, but this was at odds with the preparations outlined in advance, and with the sight of Leantio’s bloodied Ghost staring accusingly at Hippolito, suggesting a purpose to the killings. The fact that so many of the crimes were committed openly, in full view of the party, further served to diminish any subtlety or deliberation in the acts, turning it into a simple – if spectacular – bloodbath, rather than the intricately interwoven performative murders of the text.

Happily, once the dumbshow was over, there remained a few loose ends which were more effectively tied up. Hippolito was held at swordpoint, but pulled man and weapon into his stomach in a visceral moment of suicide. Bianca, too, came into her own over the Duke’s body with an enraged scream of "Twas meant for thee!" at the Cardinal which was even comic in its brazenness. Following this, however, the play quietly closed on the Cardinal’s final comments on lust. The sober conclusion following the noisy spectacle that had immediately preceded it was an interesting end to an interesting production that, while perhaps sacrificing some of its emotional complexity in favour of large show-pieces, still had much to recommend itself.

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