THEATRE / Art becomes the broken hearted: The Broken Heart - RSC, Stratford

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The Independent Culture
'A ravished wife / Widowed by lawless marriage' may sound like a bundle of contradictions, but the heroine of The Broken Heart - John Ford's Caroline tragedy, revived now at the Swan in Stratford - puts painful flesh on such paradoxes.

Before the play opens, Penthea's engagement to the man she loved has been terminated, to settle some interfamilial grudges, by her brother Ithocles - who has forced her to marry the rich and insanely jealous Bassanes. 'Buried in a bride-bed' and strumpeted by her husband, she repels the overtures of her original lover, Orgilus, on the grounds that, even if she were now to be widowed, she could never bring him a 'virgin dowry'.

The play charts the mounting psychic strain of this intolerable situation and shows how, as the frayed rope of her sanity snaps, it rekindles in others the desire for vengeance. Emma Fielding is superb, from our first sight of her as the spectral bride who drifts through the haunted imaginings of Iain Glen's excellent Orgilus to the self- starved corpse who sits propped up like some grim waxwork near the end.

Barricaded in her virginal, lily-white dress, as if in neurotic nostalgia for her lost purity, Fielding wonderfully communicates turbulence kept in check only at immense personal cost. This is no wilting heroine, though. She treats her brother (a splendidly combustible Robert Bowman) with a pointedly reproachful disdain - refusing even to look at him, in the scene where he tries to make amends, until her line 'Pray kill me'. When she presses his suit to the Princess Calantha, there's more than a hint here that she means harm in doing him this debatably good turn. Suffering makes Fielding's Penthea both pitiable and warped.

By showing us the bottled- up obsessions of the main characters in lurid fantasy- like sequences, Michael Boyd's compelling Elizabethan-dress production emphasises the emotional repression in the play's Sparta, with its aristocratic code of stoicism. Both Ithocles, trapped in a trick-chair and butchered, and Orgilus, who slits his own wrists, turn their deaths into conscious exhibitions of phlegm.

And, near the close, the play famously contains a scene in which the princess is interrupted by three separate pieces of dreadful news while engaged in a formal dance. Her refusal to let personal grief stop the dance or skew its courtly symmetries (meant to represent the epitomy of self-control and of putting public good before private consideration) is here emphasised by a spooky disjunction between dance and music, which offers a psychological subtext to the exercise.

The production is full of striking touches - like the laughter from a happy newly- wed that drifts, with the effect of a callous gaffe, into Penthea's mad scene, or the swan, a wedding decoration emblematic of her fate, that winds up suspended by its neck and disembowelled. It would be hard to think of a less appropriate logo for this marvellous theatre.

Booking: 0789 295623

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