November 26, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

The Changeling @ The Young Vic

With the bulk of the audience divided from the main stage by a net barrier, it quickly became clear that Joe Hill-Gibbins’s celebrated production of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling was deeply concerned with the question of who, exactly, was being watched. While the floor-level stage surrounded by tiers and galleries of spectators cast the central action at the level of a cockfight or bear-baiting, the netting also served to protect the central action from the implied ensemble of lunatics – us – that surrounded it. On the other side of the stage, the privileged floor-level spectators and the galleries above couldn’t help but evoke the viewing platforms of Victorian hospitals, the seats of the bourgeoisie with nothing better to do than be entertained by the ravings of the less fortunate. At the heart of this inventive and inverting production, then, stood the key question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – who watches the watchers, and who is sane enough to pass judgement on others?

The theme of madness, coupled with violence and overt sexuality, is endemic to modern productions of Jacobean tragedy, as set out in Pascale Aebischer and Roberta Barker’s excellent new collection on Performing Early Modern Drama Today. In this all-licensed world, perhaps it was a little too easy to fall into the trap of excess and the gauche. While warranted, the mad theme lent itself to spectacle at the expense of character, the graphic at the expense of the nuanced. Yet this production’s argument could not be faulted: the drives and urges of the educated classes cannot legitimately be considered substantively different to the spontaneous outpouring of the unhinged. Sense and foresight were lacking everywhere in this world, and the conclusions were as unbalanced as their setting.

Within the asylum scenes, Eleanor Matsuura’s tall and glamorous Isabella reigned supreme. Grotesques, particularly Alex Beckett’s padded Lollio, roamed a stage full of cabinets and tables, while she casually lifted weights and checked her hair. Franciscus was cut, leaving only Lollio and Nick Lee’s helmeted, gaping Antonio to pursue the asylum-keeper’s wife; yet pursue her they did, locking her within a double-sided cage and clawing at her through the bars. It became clear that no-one in this environment was entirely stable; the first asylum scene opened with Isabella screaming for silence as the noises of gibbering and shouting grew too much, while Lollio ran maniacally about the stage gesticulating wildly as he attempted to physically create the space of the prison. Antonio was wheelchair-bound, and the character did a remarkable job of pretending to struggle to move his legs in front of Lollio, before jumping up freely in front of Isabella. Rather uncomfortably, the association of fool and wheelchair was retained through Isabella’s disguised appearance in a chair, but also through direct reference to the wheelchair users in the audience, who were positioned on the edge of the floorspace and hopefully did not object to the identification.

The impression of entrapment from bound wheelchair to mobile cage became a dominant spatial theme for the production, with the local entrapments of the asylum extended outwards to the limiting spaces (physical and psychological) of the main plot. From Isabella’s early frustrated entrapment in the cage, enforced by Alex Lowe’s Alibius, to the closed cabinet into which Sinead Matthews‘ Beatrice-Joanna and Zubin Varla’s De Flores were finally pushed, the space continually acted on bodies to enclose and suppress them. Fascinatingly, this was built into a reading in which the main plot existed partially, fluidly, as an extension of the asylum itself. In the first asylum scene, noises of knocking and screaming were heard inside the portable cabinets that cluttered the stage, and at the scene’s end these prisoners were released, revealed to be De Flores, Harry Hadden-Paton’s Alsemero and Howard Ward’s Vermandero.

Rather than being two separate spaces that were reflective of one another, then, asylum and castle were instead interlocking spaces contained within one another. When Lollio brought out his inmates to rehearse their dance for Alsemero and Beatrice-Joanna’s wedding, the inmates were the wedding party themselves, performing to Lollio’s screamed commands as they moved through ceremony, dinner, speeches, dancing, drinking and so on (including a move-for-move recreation of parts of Beyonce’s Single Ladies, bizarrely and presumably coincidentally echoing Propeller’s Winter’s Tale). This choreographed sequence, concluding in the uncomfortable copulation of De Flores and the meringued Joanna on the wedding table, both undermined the importance of the wedding itself and also foregrounded the claustrophobia of this tiny space, where crimes needed to be committed in full view. Being watched from all sides as if a two-hour masque of the mad, no dignity was accorded the characters.

Within this slippery theatrical space, several constants remained. The ever-present bed and wedding table became gradually besmirched with food as, one by one, the actors succumbed to bodily desires and enacted them with punch (in which Alonzo was initially plunged by the murderous De Flores) and later jelly, which Diaphanta and Alsemero covered themselves and the bed in during their midnight triste, bathed in night-vision green but covering the white sheets in a flood of hymenal blood. Both Diaphanta and Beatrice-Joanna peed on the floor (the latter faking with a water bottle) as a result of taking Alsemero’s potion, and Alonzo defended himself during the murder with a table knife. In these comic deflations of high tragedy, Hill-Gibbins captured something of the dirty, unpleasant, physical sense of the passions; yet within the asylum framing, there was also a sense that the actions were little more than the performance of unbalanced psyches, the effects less important than the underlying intentions.

As such, it was the passions of the actors that came across most strongly as the play accelerated towards its conclusion. Diaphanta (Matsuura again) was comically excited as, drunk, she implored Beatrice-Joanna to be allowed the privilege of her bed, before running off shrieking in delight. Lollio’s urges as he waddled about the stage were rarely less than hysterical, and even Alsemero found humour in his early, desperate attempts to concentrate on prayer while focusing on the angelic Joanna. But the connection between Varla’s De Flores and Matthews’s Beatrice-Joanna was more serious. With what appeared from my position on high to be a distinctive facial rash, De Flores cut an unpleasant but not altogether unsympathetic character at first, his love for Beatrice-Joanna being expressed as a sincere and deeply felt love; while Beatrice-Joanna’s callous asides to the audience after her cloying seduction of him rendered her deeply unpleasant. Yet whatever the origins of their connection, the rigid distaste with which she endured his attentions and the mechanical way he went about both murder and rape cemented the power dynamic that was repeatedly returned to. Most powerfully, she flew into his arms in tears as she panicked over Diaphanta’s over-long stay in Alsemero’s chamber; the conflict in her as she sought solace was painful to see.

Amid the contemporary songs, loud music, ad-libbing from Lollio and disco-lighting emanating from the off-stage wedding reception, the anguish of the central characters ensured an emotional core to the play. Alsemero, while somewhat lost in the main plot, remained a voice of relative calm until his jealousy over Beatrice-Joanna’s honesty overtook him, at which point he became as violent and monstrous as De Flores himself. The other nobles functioned primarily as plot devices, even in the slow passing over of Alonzo’s ghost; this wasn’t a production looking for psychological complexity in its individual characters, but in the overall effect of the chaos. Lee’s Tomazo grew to prominence towards the end, his rage over his brother’s disappearance (reminiscent of Laertes, in some way) driving him to be a particularly threatening presence as he straightened Alsemero’s tie and cornered De Flores. It was Beatrice-Joanna though, torn between her competing impulses and finally dying with croaked pleas directed to no-one in particular, who best captured the play’s sense of undirected passion, emotion delivered without restraint or purpose.

Continually, the production threatened to spill out of its confines and seep into the audience, most transparently as De Flores ran about the stage setting fires and finally causing the house lights to rise and the Vic’s own fire alarms to go off (on a side note here – it was a shame to note that the sound design appeared to be suffering from glitches throughout, with effects interrupted several times). The clutching of characters at the netting as they addressed soliloquies at the audience suggested attempts to articulate a voice of reason that might stand out from the madness within. Yet it was more as characters finally retreated into the closets and entrances that contained them (most obviously as the two murderers were finally thrown together into a cabinet) that some form of closure prevailed. The ambiguous noises emanating from the closet immediately before the climax were perhaps a fitting image to be drawn from a production that acted to point up our means of shutting ourselves away from that which makes us uncomfortable, or which we simply cannot understand.

The violent, chaotic conclusion saw Tomazo furiously pelting the remaining food at the bodies of De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna, drawing others in and leaving them covered in the remnants of the wedding feast. As Isabella and Alibius screamed at one another, Vermandero and the other nobles cried or roared, and Alsemero picked up a microphone and began shouting at the audience, one realised that the confined space of the stage had finally become the home of Lollio’s poor subjects. Yet if this was all, finally, a show of the insane, it also reflected interestingly on those of us willing to watch and laugh at it. With the traumas, psychoses and crimes of this tragedy packaged and confined, I wonder if we were invited to consider our sense of our own bizarre and troubling behaviours, themselves a madness invisible to us until we’re able to see ourselves properly. That may be an over-reading, but nonetheless, this was an inspiring and provocative production that, once more, proved the power of Middleton’s tragedies on the modern stage.

Posted in Theatre review