Women Beware Women
Harriet Walter gives a thoughtful and complex performance in Marianne Elliott's unsettling staging of Middleton's potent tragedy.
The blackly satirical play is set in Renaissance Florence, a world steeped in corruption where the powerful can take whatever and whoever they want; but Elliot has reset the work in the mid-twentieth century, where the women wear sweeping, full skirts, the music is sultry and there's a shadow of something fascistic care of Lez Brotherston's imposing set. This admittedly makes for an attractive staging but doesn't add much in the way of substance.
Where Elliott does succeed is in successfully balancing the tragic elements of the play with its passages of lewd, crude humor. Although the pacing wobbles a bit in the first half, this is soon rectified.
Leantio, a young clerk (Samuel Barnett) has secretly married Bianca (Lauren O'Neil), a 16-year-old girl from a noble family. Such is his shock at his good fortune that he guards his '"treasure" possessively and orders his mother to keep her hidden from the world while he is away on business. He has not been gone long when the Duke (Richard Lintern), on procession through the city streets, spies Bianca at her window and decides he must have her. Hers is a stark choice, one prison for another; but at least the Duke offers wealth and comfort.
Enter the scheming Livia (Harriet Walter), the twice-widowed sister of the Duke. Though strong of will and enjoying a position of unique privilege herself, she is happy to use her influence to steer younger girls than she into treacherous waters. Firstly, she tells a lie that encourages Isabella (Vanessa Kirby), her niece, who is already engaged to a wealthy but dense young man, to embark on an incestuous relationship with her uncle Hippolito (Raymond Coulthard).
Livia is also the catalyst for the Duke's acquisition of Bianca, engaging the girl's mother-in-law in a game of chess as the Duke brutally takes what he wants. Yet when Livia finds herself falling for Leantio, she is undone -- and finally able to appreciate the hell she has helped create just as her world falls spectacularly apart.
This being Middleton, it all ends in carnage. The climatic final masque in which the characters get their comeuppance is magnificently staged. The set revolves with increasing speed as the blood flows and the bodies fall. Choreographed by Arthur Pita, it's an atmospheric, disturbing, and hellish scene, as a gang of black-winged figures set about Isabella's prone body while the poisoned goblet inevitably falls into the wrong hands. Only the red-robed cardinal comes through it unscathed, and even he is no beacon of morality, sounding a final bitter note.
The performances throughout are well-judged, particularly Walter, who clearly relishes the complexities of Livia's character. O'Neil and Kirby present differing but compelling accounts of innocence being eroded, and Bianca's blooming capacity for cunning -- and her acceptance of her new situation -- is particularly chilling to see.