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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
A WOMAN KILLED WITH KINDNESS
at the National (Lyttelton)

CALCULATED CRUELTY
By NICK CURTIS

  Sandy McDade and Leo Bill/ Ph: Stephen Cummiskey

I’ve been thrilled, enraptured and exasperated by Katie Mitchell’s productions before, but her staging of Thomas Heywood’s rarely revived Elizabethan tragedy is the first to bore me. Gone is the pure, spare narrative focus of Mitchell’s early years, and gone too her more recent zest for mixed-media experimentation. Instead this tale of two women ruined is drastically cut and relocated from 1607 to 1919, its two narratives played out on adjoining country-house sets, the action by turns static and over-busy. It’s like looking at a dolls’ house.
 
Heywood was reputedly the first writer to drag tragedy out of the palace and into the middle-class drawing room. Indeed, he sometimes seems closer to Ibsen here than to Shakespeare, in his domestic focus and the remorseless way his heroines are trapped and destroyed. Mitchell emphasizes this by cutting lots of the male characters’ self-justifying speeches, and interpolating moments of dumbshow, mime and expressive movement that highlight female oppression.
 
Liz White’s otherwise abstracted Anne Frankford is shown violated and cringing on her wedding night. This takes some of the immoral sting out of the affair she embarks on with her husband’s ardent houseguest Wendoll. Her husband’s "kindly" revenge is to give her all the trappings of their married life apart from access to him and their two children, calculated cruelty that causes her to starve herself to death. Sandy McDade’s martyred Susan, meanwhile, is married off to Anne’s brother Sir Francis, to excuse her brother’s debt to him. She repeatedly mimes resistance of his embrace. Both women are carried about and arranged on the set, like ornaments.
 
This breeds a torpidity in the exchanges between the main characters, which contrasts absurdly with the way the servants are forced to scamper up and down the stairs carrying sick-buckets, gramophones, card tables and so on. When the action shifts to one side of the set, servants are still zipping about on the other. It’s distracting. Few of the actors, apart from McDade and Leo Bill as Susan’s neurasthenic brother, have space to excel. And though Heywood’s play is an intriguing curiosity, there isn’t quite enough to it after Mitchell’s ministrations to hold the attention.

 


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