August 23, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

A Woman Killed with Kindness (National) @ The Lyttleton Theatre

The safety curtain went up on my first-ever Heywood production on Saturday, and for the first time in many years I was dumbstruck by the beauty of a set. Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer had created two Edwardian houses, connecting imperfectly in the centre, realised in lavish detail. In the Frankfords’ house, a large balcony was reached by a spiral staircase, and the homely decorations of the ground floor included an upright piano, delicate flowers and intimate tables for playing cards. The home of the Mountfords, meanwhile, was far more austere – a wide staircase curved upwards towards a landing whose wall was dominated by framed watercolours, and the ground floor was dominated by a grand piano and an imposing entrance. Both rooms were lit from the side by "natural" light streaming in at windows, as well as nascent electrical lights. Telephones and gramophones stood proudly in position, and the wide space of the stage allowed the homes to feel both lived in and receptive to scenes of rapid movement. It was truly stunning.

It’s a shame, then, that Katie Mitchell’s production wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as its design. The side-by-side houses pandered to a central conceit: that Anne Frankford and Susan Mountford were essentially twins, trapped in their dollhouses. This was Heywood as conceived through Ibsen, full of business and naturalistic movement. A large case of servants bustled about the stage in stylised scene changes, which showed the passage of time as plants were moved in and out, bits of furniture rearranged, floors swept and artworks changed. During these slickly-choreographed but overlong and chaotically-scored sequences, the mistresses were themselves picked up and put into their appropriate places, the message clearly being that the women were only one more bit of household furniture, property to be placed as the masters saw fit.

The simultaneous staging meant that, while one scene was taking place, silent action was frequently occurring on the other side of the stage. Anne and Susan would pluck at piano keys at the same time, underlining the unspoken bond between the pair, or bits of dialogue would overlap. While this aimed for synchronicity, it rather downplayed the very key differences between the two. Mitchell’s production was geared towards delivering a sledgehammer message about the oppression of women by men in a society that treats women as objects, but this had the disadvantage of reducing Susan and Anne to near-empty receptacles for an overly-simplistic feminist agenda.

This is not to say, of course, that Heywood’s play does not lend itself to a feminist reading; quite the reverse. The Susan storyline recalls Measure for Measure in its female protagonist’s resistance of an unwanted sexual suit that becomes blackmail; and in her brother’s demand that she yield her chastity for his sake. Sandy McDade was wonderful in this scene. As soon as she realised what was happening, she screamed in frustration, and attempted to run out of the door three times, held back repeatedly by her brother and suitor in an horrific scene of entrapment. Her subsequent shriek of yielding was particularly upsetting, and the bemusement of the two men even more so – they were not only forcing her to marry, but clearly could not comprehend the scale of the issue for her. However, a subsequent added scene of Susan attempting to hang herself from the banister, only to be prevented by the appearance of the servant, went too far in trying to stress the point, and did a disservice to McDade’s intense performance. We did not need this in order to understand the scale of the betrayal – far better for this was the much subtler sequence in which we saw Sir Francis and Susan return home from walking on three occasions, on each of which she refused him a kiss.

Similarly, the unkindness heaped on Anne following the discovery of her affair was handled obviously and too crudely. Mitchell showed little interest in the marriage between Frankford and Anne, or in the reasons that drove her to her liaison with Wendoll. A scene immediately after the wedding reception saw the married couple go to bed, only for Anne to emerge in pain following a traumatic first sexual experience, her white nightdress spattered with blood. She sponged her legs as an elderly maid servant wrung her hands, and Frankford emerged from the bedroom calling in some confusion for his wife. No more was done, however, to hint at marital problems, and Paul Ready’s sympathetic performance as Frankford attempted to establish a loving relationship, despite his long absences. As such, although the production took delight in Sebastian Armesto’s Wendoll being thrown naked out of the house, the violence shown by Frankford to Anne felt too much of a shift in character.

The production appeared to want us to sympathise with Anne, through the continued connections to Susan, her emotional response to the loss of her children, and to the vulnerability shown in the earliest scene. This came at the cost of any particularly nuanced exploration of the complexities of Heywood’s play, the very idea of the woman being "killed with kindness". It came dangerously close, particularly in the dark and surreptitious snooping of Frankford prior to the discovery of the lovers, to blaming Frankford for disrupting the lovers’ affair that had sustained the tranquility of the house thus far. While Ready did a fine job with the emotional inconsistency of the cuckold and the conflicted response of the man who wants to erase his former lover completely (a beautiful moment saw him burst out of his bedroom and scream "No, no, no!" as Anne allowed herself a farewell tinkle of the piano), the production did far more of a disservice to Liz White’s Anne, who was treated and played passively throughout. In an overly-determined and naturalistic production, it was striking how little time was given to the affair and how simplistically her contrition and sorrow was depicted. For a production that so clearly wanted to give its women a voice, it was surprising just how silent she was.

There were some decent performances elsewhere. The servants were good, particularly Gawn Grainger’s Nicholas, who had the evening’s most moving moment as he bravely stood up to Frankford to inform his master of his wife’s infidelity. Leo Bill also did good work as Sir Charles Mountford, presenting the character as a complex toff: insistent on maintaining the family’s dignity, he was nonetheless conflicted over every action he took, and grew gradually more broken as his freedom and riches were stripped away. The desperation with which he gave his sister over to his arch-enemy was affecting.

A final scene saw a whole other set appear downstage, as a downbeat hospital room emerged from beneath the stage. Anne died slowly in bed, watched over by her husband and tearful servants, in a sentimental end that continued to fail to either take a justifiable side or offer anything beyond the simplistic. It was left to Susan to deliver the play’s title as a moral, her anger still resonant in her voice. It was a richly-staged production, but a lack of focus and an overly-busy aesthetic ultimately left this an unsatisfactory experience. The wry humour of Heywood’s play (particularly the card scene) and the complexity of the play’s gender dynamics called for something far more sophisticated. Still, it’s great to have Heywood back on a main stage.

Posted in Theatre review