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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Vanessa Kirby and Harriet Walter/ Ph: Simon Annand

At the end of Thomas Middleton's 1621 tragedy Women Beware Women, there are more dead bodies on stage than in the final moments of Hamlet. It's the gory, Grande Guignol climax to a rude, crude Jacobean romp in which lust, greed, incest, murder, sexual infidelity and rape are the order of the day – and night.
It begins when a rather nerdish and indigent Florentine bank clerk called Leantio (Samuel Barnett), elopes with the beautiful Bianca (Lauren O'Neil), a wealthy heiress, and marries her. Unbeknownst to the hapless Leantio, Bianca has caught the eye of the libidinous Duke of Florence (Richard Lintern), who, with the conniving help of the reptilian widow Livia (Harriet Walter), lures Bianca to his courtly residence where he rapes her.
Livia also cunningly contrives a marriage between her niece Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) to a punkish idiot (Harry Melling) while at the same time paving a way for her brother Hippolito and Isabella to have an incestuous affair on the side. And if that's not damage enough, she then sets her sights on poor Leantio, whom she seduces with promises of wealth and status.
Though it is the scheming of the kind of treacherous woman the play's title asks you to beware, it's the Duke and Hippolito who benefit most from her machinations. As in most Jacobean tragedies, immorality comes at quite a price with the web of deceit in which the protagonists are ensnared resulting in murder most foul.
Director Marianne Elliott stages the play's bloody final act as an orgiastic masque in which actions speak more ghoulishly than words. She's assisted by Lez Brotherston's set, which goes into permanent revolve mode during this elaborate and inventively staged dance of death. Once again the full resources of the Olivier's remarkable facilities are effectively employed with particularly striking use being made of a quartet of impressive chandeliers.
Yet the most memorable scene is the intimate chess-playing encounter between Livia and Leantio's frumpy old mum (Tilly Tremayne), which takes place while the Duke is having his way with Bianca in another part of the court. Unaware that her daughter-in-law is being ravished against her will, the old woman listens innocently to the chess-related metaphors and sexual innuendos spoken not so innocently by the knowing Livia.
It's staged in modern dress and with an accompanying jazz score. But as the atmosphere at its very core is so endemic to the morals, mores and machinations of Jacobean tragedy, to take it out of the period that defines it seems pointless.
Still, it's a generally well-staged revival with a deliciously subtle yet poisonous performance from Harriet Walter, who, with Harry Melling's preening, doltish idiot, stands out from a cast that's merely routine. 

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