23 April 2010

Women Beware Women - National Theatre, Wednesday 18th April 2010


At the court of the Duke of Florence, a husband must be found for Isabella, daughter to Fabritio and niece to the scheming professional widow, Livia. Guardiano, a Courtier suggests his nephew, the foolish Ward, but Isabella refuses him, and through the machinations of her aunt, the innocent Isabella is seduced by her salacious uncle, Livia’s brother Hippolito.

Leantio, a poor agent, has married Bianca, a wealthy heiress. Shortly after their union, Leantio is called back to his business, leaving his wife alone with his mother.

When the Florentine Duke catches Bianca’s eye, she too is procured by Livia whose quest for sexual power kick-starts a chain of events that will shake the foundations of polite society. She seduces the estranged husband Leantio, but their relationship is cut short when he is wounded and killed in a duel by her brother.

The newly-widowed Bianca quickly marries the Duke, and under the pretence of a play performed for their nuptials, those caught in the web of deceit and betrayal enact brutal and bloody revenge on each other.

Leantio -Samuel Barnett
Sordido - Nick Blood
Hippolito - Raymond Coulthard
Fabritio - James Hayes
Messenger - Samuel James
Isabella - Vanessa Kirby
Duke of Florence - Richard Lintern
Ward - Harry Melling
Lord Cardinal - Chu Omambala
Bianca - Lauren O’Neil
Mother - Tilly Tremayne
Livia - Harriet Walter
Guardiano - Andrew Woodall

Well, this WAS a disappointment - not only for me, but for Him Indoors, who had been bouncing up and down in his chair for the last three weeks squawking "We're going to see Women Beware Women"! at every possible opportunity like a demented parrot. We were both expecting (and hoping for) a debauched, seedy, blood-soaked Florentine Court much in the vein of The Revenger's Tragedy but got a pale, controlled and somewhat too squeaky clean version set vaguely in the 50's where everything seemed to have been dipped in Flash and given a good scrub down.  Part of the problem was that the enormous revolving set, although interesting to look at and allowing for playing on lots of physical levels, was just that bit too well-kempt, well-lit and frosty-clean to hint at the corruption and depravity that was meant to be lurking behind it. Cobwebs decay and darkness lit by dribbly candles would have been more appropriate, but for most of the evening we were looking at enough shiny black marble floortiles and perspex panels to give the man from the Cilit Bang adverts a hard-on.  The 1950s are not an era that you would really associate with depravity - if you ARE going to be lazy and put on a modern dress production (rather than setting it in the correct period with all the gorgeousness and lushness and corruption that this engenders - and at least it would have been visually more impressive than the tired old "black, white and red" idea), then the 1980s would have been more appropriately sleazy, and would have provided a better example of a society of incredible disparities in wealth.  The 50s seemed just a bit too.... safe.   

Another problem was that Middleton's text really rather failed to catch fire at any point - it's very, very wordy and yet somehow quite sterile - you'd usually expect 17th century Revenge Drama to be a lot more florid.  I know that this was a very early preview performance, so maybe the cast were still trying to stretch their vocals to give their lines some colour and adapt to the cavernous space, but it did all seem a little....well, rehearsed, really. 

Part of the problem was certainly with the casting. Samuel Barnett looked and sounded like a very young Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen) and was not terribly convincing - too shrill, too geeky, too self-consciously ingenue.  Vanessa Kirby is  far too old to be playing a 16 or 17 year old girl and it was a bad mistake to give her a role which requires singing a throaty jazz number because she just ain't got the vocal talent to pull it off. I did feel sorry for her, however, having to appear several times in a frock that already seemed to be fraying badly at the front hem.  Harriet Walter, much as I adored her in the film of Sense and Sensibility and her completely scene-stealing role in The Young Victoria, looked somewhat dessicated to be playing a voluptuous, scheming murderess, and creaked about the stage like a Machiavellian pterodactyl.  Her vocal projection seemed to be suffering as well; like the brittle crackling of pages in a badly-stored book.  Lauren O'Neill was by far the most appropriately cast, holding the stage well and gorgeously audible, but it was probably Tilly Tremaine who walked away with all the acting honours as Leantio's elderly mother, giving a simple yet elegant portrayal of poverty-stricken respectability  (a lovely little bit of direction has her carefully popping several bits of unwanted Turkish Delight from the grand dinner table into her handbag in the second act).  However, she probably won't be tying her apron strings up in such a complicated bow ever again as they got caught up in a knot and, after a slighly unprofessional struggle with them during the first five minutes of the play, decided to wiggle out of the offending apron, drop it to the floor and step out of it.  Personally, I would have just turned my back on someone and indicated to them to undo me - very possibly Nick Blood's gorgeously sexy Sordido.  James Hayes as Fabritio fell foul of Spencer Tracy's famous adage about acting "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture" by very audibly falling over a step while making his first entrance.  Tsk tsk, and this at the National. 

Obviously the audience found the first act very hard going as there were quite noticeable absentees after the interval (it is a very complicated plot, admittedly), although the two American women next to me might have found it easier to follow had one of them stopped playing with her Blackberry and the other refrained from doodling on a Starbucks napkin all the way through.  There is an extremely badly misjudged attempt at a comedy interlude halfway through the second act which grates badly with the rest of the piece, and the plot takes an unsympathetic and incredible (in the original sense of the word) turn when Livia falls for Leantio and pursues him like a cross between a preying mantis and  Lady Bracknell stalking a butterfly.  It was only in the final five minutes or so that the blood-and-guts really started spilling in a wonderfully baroque piece of staging as the servants metamorphosed into black-winged Angels of Death attendant on a masque where poison, knives and garrottes were deployed with abandon.  If only the rest of the production had been like these last few minutes, then the entire night wouldn't have felt like such a waste of time.  As it is, this was far too clinical, too anodyne and not nearly decadent enough. I predict a flop.  Beware Women Beware Women!

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