November 27, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Changeling (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford–upon–Avon

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The poster for the new production by the Shakespeare Institute Players advertised “The Changeling by Thomas Middleton”. Beneath, in much smaller letters, came the almost apologetic “and William Rowley”. It’s an interesting reminder of the hierarchies that persist in the presentation of collaborative work, even when Shakespeare isn’t involved. It also pointed to a severe editing of the text – this production, two hours including interval, reduced the subplot to its barest bones, leaving nothing more than the vague impression of two disguised servants wooing the bewildered Isabella (Yolana Wassersug).

Joy Leslie Gibson’s production focused instead on the primary story, particularly the intractable bond that developed between Deflores (Matt Kubus) and Beatrice-Joanna (Jamie Sowers). The entire cast remained onstage for most of the performance, sitting in a horseshoe that heightened the claustrophobia of the piece and the sense of always being watched. As characters edged around the back of their seated counterparts, little references (tongues poked out by extra madmen, Beatrice-Joanna handing Deflores a dagger) kept an exchange going between the seated and performing figures, moving the play towards its relentless conclusion.

It’s not my policy to focus overly on particular performances when reviewing the Players (seeing as I’m friends with several of the cast), but I’ll just pick out two that particularly stood out as important interpretations. Kubus’s Deflores was stunningly good, and remarkably sympathetic. With welts on his face and a hobbled leg, he edged around the stage leaning heavily on a stick, appealing in soliloquy to the audience and cowing himself before his onstage peers. His demeanour throughout was of the wronged victim, pointed up in the early cruel act of Beatrice-Joanna as she pushed the cripple hard to the floor while giving him her glove. His obsessive love for Beatrice-Joanna was disquieting in its calmness, she succumbing to his firm and still demands without need for crude seduction or unnecessarily perverted language. He simply felt that this was a recompense that the world owed him, and his busy industry kept him engaging throughout, particularly in the amusing scene as he marched through with a gun upraised to “clear the chimney”. His double-act with Sowers worked well throughout, drawing her closer to him and bringing them into a collusion based on earned trust and a reckless resignation to their fates. As he crawled across the stage towards her body, dying, one felt the tragedy as he fell just short of being able to reach her hand.

The other standout performance was Helen Osborne’s Diaphanta. This sly maid drew a steady stream of subtlety and innuendo from her lines and kept up a steady background rapport with Jasperino (Charlie Morton) during the early scenes, adding colour to a relatively linear story. Her eager offering of herself to take Beatrice-Joanna’s place in Alsemero’s bed and her entertaining acting out of the stages of laughter and melancholy following her taking of the chastity test were amusing, but nothing to her appearance in nightwear and amazing bed hair, panting joyfully of her exertions to her quietly fuming mistress.

Beyond these performances, an able cast kept the story fast-paced and clear, conjuring an atmosphere of double-crossing and mistrust that situated the Deflores/Beatrice-Joanna plot within a wider context of duality and betrayal. While the subplot was too perfunctorily handled to draw out the important thematic connections between it and the main plot, the cast did a solid job (particularly Emma Johnson’s rather intimidating Lollio), and the chamber atmosphere of the setting suited the play well. While the run was all-too-brief (five performances in three days), it offered an efficient and often interesting take on a true masterpiece of the Jacobean stage.

Posted in Theatre review